The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

School Prayer and Discrimination:
The Civil Rights of Religious Minorities and Dissenters
By Frank S. Ravitch
Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999. $50

Reviewed by Edd Doerr

Book Review May/June 2000

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A few steps from UUA headquarters, on the Massachusetts statehouse lawn, stand statues of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, who were persecuted for their liberal religious views in mid-17th century Boston. Dyer was hanged, Hutchinson merely exiled from the colony.

Also exiled as a liberal, two years before Hutchinson, was Roger Williams, who went on to found Rhode Island. Williams invented the idea of church-state separation, but not much came of it until Jefferson and Madison picked it up during the American Revolution. The principle was implied in the US Constitution, written in 1787, and made more explicit in the First Amendment. The famous "wall of separation" metaphor first appeared in Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists. Since then, Leo Pfeffer concludes in his monumental Church, State and Freedom (Beacon Press, 1953), "The American people have by and large been faithful to the obligation placed on them by the framers of the First Amendment; church and state have been kept separate, and religious freedom has been preserved."

But Pfeffer overgeneralizes. If we narrow our focus to the history of US public education, we see it dogged by controversies over organized religious observances, particularly prayer and Bible reading. These tended to be "pan-Protestant" in character and thus offensive to Catholics and other religious minorities. As the country grew more pluralistic over time, public education gradually became more secular—i.e., religiously neutral—and therefore more acceptable to religious minorities and dissenters. This process culminated in a series of US Supreme Court rulings, including the 1948 McCollum decision (banning religious instruction in public schools), the Engel and Schempp decisions in 1962 and 1963 (banning school-sponsored religious observan-ces), and subsequent decisions against posting the Ten Commandments, teaching "creationism" in science classes, and sponsoring clergy prayers at graduations.

But, as University of Orlando School of Law professor Frank Ravitch points out in his groundbreaking new book School Prayer and Discrimination, the handful of familiar Supreme Court rulings tell a significant but small part of a much bigger story. Yes, all efforts to amend the First Amendment and overturn the school prayer rulings have failed, most recently in mid-1998, when the Istook school prayer/school voucher amendment fell well short of the needed two-thirds vote in the House. But, as Ravitch shows, a powerful new religious right movement has arisen in the last quarter century and now threatens to turn the calendar back to the bad old days of theocratic rule. He makes clear, for instance, that the Supreme Court's rulings have been confined to the constitutionality of certain types of religious observance in public schools and that for every case that reached the Supreme Court, hundreds, perhaps thousands, never got into any court because aggrieved students and parents didn't know how to seek a remedy, couldn't afford to do so, or were intimidated into suffering in silence. Citing several recent horror stories, he shows that the courts are ill equipped to end the harassment, persecution, and discrimination inflicted on religious minorities, dissenters, and whistle-blowers. His proposed solution, beyond continued resort to the courts for protection against First Amendment violations, is for Congress to craft civil rights legislation, a topic he discusses at length in the book.

Ravitch exudes a certain understandable pessimism, but I would offer a hopeful observation. Protestant influence in public education in the 19th century encouraged the growth of a large Catholic private school network, which by 1965 enrolled 5.5 million students, about half of all US Catholic kids. But after secularization and the 1962-63 Supreme Court prayer rulings made public schools acceptable to most of this country's largest religious minority, Catholic school enrollment shrank by more than half, and three-fourths of US Catholic children now attend public schools.

Ravitch summons us to finish the job of making our public schools agreeable to people of every persuasion. His book provides useful suggestions for doing so.

Edd Doerr, executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty and president of the American Humanist Association, is a member of the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church in Adelphi, MD. Author, co-author, or editor of 17 books, Doerr, with his wife, Herenia, recently completed a Spanish translation of Rabbi Sherwin Wine's book Staying Sane in a Crazy World.

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