kitchen table math, the sequel: Justice Rehnquist on school prayer and the Constitution

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Justice Rehnquist on school prayer and the Constitution

My first post on Wallace vs. Jaffree did not make clear that Justice Rehnquist supported Alabama's statute § 16-1-20.1, which authorized "a 1-minute period of silence in all public schools 'for meditation or voluntary prayer.'"

An Appeals Court found 16-1-20.1 unconstitutional; the Supreme Court upheld.

Justices Rehnquist, White, and Burger dissented. They argue that prayer in public schools is constitutional.

Here is Rehnquist:
The Framers intended the Establishment Clause to prohibit the designation of any church as a "national" one. The Clause was also designed to stop the Federal Government from asserting a preference for one religious denomination or sect over others. Given the "incorporation" of the Establishment Clause as against the States via the Fourteenth Amendment in Everson [1947], States are prohibited as well from establishing a religion or discriminating between sects. As its history abundantly shows, however, nothing in the Establishment Clause requires government to be strictly neutral between religion and irreligion, nor does that Clause prohibit Congress or the States from pursuing legitimate secular ends through nondiscriminatory sectarian means.

The Court strikes down the Alabama statute because the State wished to "characterize prayer as a favored practice." Ante, at 60. It would come as much of a shock to those who drafted the Bill of Rights as it will to a large number of thoughtful Americans today to learn that the Constitution, as construed by the majority, prohibits the Alabama Legislature from "endorsing" prayer. George Washington himself, at the request of the very Congress which passed the Bill of Rights, proclaimed a day of "public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God." History must judge whether it was the Father of his Country in 1789, or a majority of the Court today, which has strayed from the meaning of the Establishment Clause.

The State surely has a secular interest in regulating the manner in which public schools are conducted. Nothing in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, properly understood, prohibits any such generalized "endorsement" of prayer. I would therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
I'll post excerpts from Justice Burger's dissent as well.

and see:
the Establishment Clause
Free Exercise Clause
Wallace vs Jaffree
the Lemon test
Lemon v. Kurzman 
Lemon test

Justice Rehnquist lists "unprincipled" and "inconsistent" decisions
Justice Rehnquist on school prayer and the Constitution
Jefferson's "wall of separation"
Justice Burger's dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree
Benjamin Cardozo on metaphors in law

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