Whenever government gets intertwined with religion, the integrity of religious faith and individual freedom both suffer.
The most recent case in point is Alabama, where a federal court has just opened the door for more prayer in public schools.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that Alabama teachers and other school officials may not lead prayers, but students have sweeping free speech and free exercise rights to lead prayers themselves. Graduation ceremonies, athletic events and even morning announcements over the intercom are now likely to feature "student-led" invocations and sermonizing.
The judges airily dismissed concerns about the rights of religious minorities or others who might object to such devotions. "Those who do not espouse a speaker's religious beliefs are free not to listen," the panel said, "and to express their disagreement by not participating in any way."
What about the separation of church and state? Adding insult to injury, the court derided Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" metaphor and argued that "the Constitution probably does not require a 'wall' at all."
This decision is deeply flawed. It clearly ignores the rights of individuals who want to attend public school without involuntarily becoming part of someone else's congregation. In a relatively homogeneous state like Alabama, most prayers led by students will be Christian, with a decided emphasis on the evangelical variety.
School children should never become a captive audience for religious worship they don't share, whether it is led by teachers or their classmates. Public schools are not houses of worship and they shouldn't be drafted into that improper role.
Ironically, the appellate court decision also decrees that student-led prayers cannot be "proselytizing," whatever that means. Will only generic prayers be allowed? Will there be a theological committee created to decide which prayers pass muster and which do not?
This decision clearly draws us into a morass of religious judgments that ought to be made by children and their families, not government or judicial officials.
Let students pray voluntarily whenever they have free time. But don't allow some students to try to force their personal religious convictions on others.
That's a basic tenet of American freedom.