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Prayer at a Banquet: an In-depth Look Behind the Legality of Public Religion and Prayer.

Published May 11th, 2012    By Nikita Chirkov

On May 7th, 2012 Ball High School held an exciting and enjoyable sports banquet. The food, the awards and the ceremony were all excellent… except for one thing, or what some would have us believe. The opening prayer which blessed the food was so “insulting” that many individuals were infuriated by this cultural phenomenon and decided to write letters to the district raising possible legal questions about the prayer. May I remind you, or inform you that when an outrageously controversial book called “Nickel and Dimed” bashed Christians from all directions, most everyone in Ball High School was satisfied and frankly undisturbed; and now a Christian prayer heard during a banquet creates a massive unrest and repudiation. This Anti- Christian attitude which I was so determined to illustrate in the analysis of Nickel and Dimed is finally clear and obvious. However, I will leave that issue for another day for it is not the most immediate focus of this article. What this work will do instead, is analyze three distinct areas of history, law, and interpretation, in order to raise legitimate defense against these allegations, and demonstrate their inaccuracy.

            History, it is argued, and more importantly the text of the Constitution clearly establishes “separation of church and state” making collective praying in schools illegal. Let us spend a few minutes analyzing the latter claim which is the root of the opposing argument. Separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. The text of the 1st Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” So where, may I ask, do we see the words “separation of church and state”? The clear intention of the amendment was to prevent Congress, that is the federal government, from passing laws which would institute an official national religion or theocracy. That is different from separating church and state; after all an act of congress struck down for establishing a national religion and school officials being dismissed for allowing a student to lead a prayer are two not only different, but incomparable circumstances. Furthermore, under the 1st Amendment the individuals were guaranteed “free exercise” of religion which could not be “prohibited”. The next question which reasonably follows is what did the Framers mean when they wrote “free exercise thereof”? The answer is simple. During, and well after the Constitutional Ratification, government has aided religious activities all over the country. Laws like this one passed in 1782: "The Congress of the United States recommends and approves the Holy Bible for use in all schools" were an ordinary and an acceptable procedure. The intent, therefore, is self declaratory on the truth deemed constitutional and acceptable during the lifetimes of men who have written it with their own hands. Indeed the government had the full constitutional authority to aid any religious activity while reserving to each individual an exclusive right of optional non-participation.

            If the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights do not establish “separation of church and state”, than who does? The answer to this question is more shocking than many would wish it to be. In 1946 a taxpayer sued a school district which provided reimbursements for parents who used transportation to public and private schools. In the following year the Supreme Court of the United State has ruled one of the most disastrous decisions concerning religious liberty and the interpretation of the 1st Amendment. In the case Everson v. Board of Education, a 5 to 4 decision ruled in favor of applying the text of the 1st Amendment to the state level, despite the fact that the text clearly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” The rationale behind the ruling was even more perverted than the blind dismissal of the word “Congress” from the latter clause. The court reasoned that the 1st Amendment passed and ratified in 1791 is to be interpreted through the scope of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment ratified in 1868 which states in part: “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…” Indeed the absurd reasoning of the court resulted in a loophole in the Constitution, raising one of the most important questions which remains to be answered - How is it that the Supreme Court applied the Establishment Clause to the States while successfully avoiding the process of amending the Constitution? What the court should have done if it was concerned about the rule of law and the Constitution, is rule that in order to change the 1st Amendment you have to actually amend it, and go through the appropriate procedures laid out in Article 5. However, the surprises do not end here. Ruling for the majority, Justice Hugo Black, a former KKK member and a lawyer for the Klan, for the first time in courts history, used a legal term “separation of church and state” when writing the majority opinion which will be used for decades to come. It’s not the fact that he was a former KKK member, or even the fact that he represented one of Klan’s murderers as a lawyer for the Klan which is the real issue with his judicial opinion, but rather his unparalleled hatred and hostility toward the church. According to Blacks own son: “The Ku Klux Klan and Daddy, so far as I could tell, had one thing in common. He suspected the Catholic Church. He used to read all of Paul Blanshard's books exposing the power abuse in the Catholic Church. He thought the Pope and the bishops had too much power and property. He resented the fact that rental property owned by the Church was not taxed; he felt they got most of their revenue from the poor and did not return enough of it.” Is it not a sick and perverted irony that the ruling of Hugo Black would go on to damage the Catholic Church which he so detested prior to this court case?

            However, let us now imagine for a moment, that we are in a court of law, and that separation of church and state is a perfectly legitimate constitutional precedent unless otherwise overturned by another ruling. What now becomes of our circumstance? Is a student who led a prayer on a private ground on a school sponsored event legal? The answer is, without a shadow of a doubt, yes. A Supreme Court Decision Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community Sch. Dist (1969) has ruled that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Furthermore, there is a difference between government speech, and publically initiated speech. Students can lead other students and staff in a prayer, but the school officials cannot force all the members to participate.

Let us now review, step by step, the direct law and how it contrasts with the events which have occurred on the night of the Ball High Athletic Banquet. The Department of Education has the following guidelines in place for determining weather or not a religious activity is Constitutional:


“teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities.  Nor may school officials attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities”.


Not so in our circumstance, the prayer was not lead by a school official, there were no devotional readings from the Bible, nor was I at any point in time, as an attending member of the banquet required by any school official to participate in a prayer. I, and everyone else attending, always possessed a right to opt out from any procedure at the banquet. Furthermore, it is likewise important to note that the entire banquet was an optional attendance ceremony, and not a school mandated activity.


“The Supreme Court held that public school officials violated the Constitution in inviting a member of the clergy to deliver a prayer at a graduation ceremony. Nor may school officials grant religious speakers preferential access to public audiences, or otherwise select public speakers on a basis that favors religious speech.”


Again, our given circumstance does not match the description above. The speaker was not the member of the clergy, the speaker was a student. The speaker did not have a “preferential access” to the public audience; matter of fact the speaker expressed her concerns as to her preparation to the prayer. And lastly, the speaker was not cherry picked from a particular interest group in order to advance religious speech, but was a crucial “Introductory Speaker” in the program chosen primarily for that purpose.


“where schools permit student expression on the basis of genuinely neutral criteria and students retain primary control over the content of their expression, the speech of students who choose to express themselves through religious means such as prayer is not attributable to the state and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious content. Student remarks are not attributable to the state simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience.”


            Now this situation is perfectly comparable to the prayer that took place on May 7th. The school did not moderate or require a particular type of prayer and left it up to the speaker to choose the content of her expression. This expression, thus being said by a school student and not a government official or school employee, does not in any way represent the religious position of the government simply because it is “delivered in a public setting or to a public audience”.

However, this is not all. All of the legal reasoning and arguments above put together do not come close to our final and most important point which puts this issue to rest once and for all. Indeed this is the grand finale of these analyses, and yes I’ve saved the best for last. If you are an individual who vigorously opposed the prayer, have you bothered asking yourself or others about who sponsored the event and on which property, private or public, was the event held? The truth, as it turns out, disqualifies this event entirely from any legal challenge what so ever. As I was informed by a school official, it was the Athletic Booster Club which sponsored the majority if not the entire banquet. Furthermore, the banquet was taking place at a private and not public property which disqualifies several of the above mentioned restrictions on religious procedures which only have to be followed on school and public grounds.

Indeed so rudimentary and clear cut is this issue that all those who have chosen to write long letters of complaints must truly feel that they have wasted their time. As for those who still think a prayer at a banquet is offensive for it references God, that the Pledge of Allegiance must abolish the phrase “under God” and that God must be removed from the American Dollar, let me quote to you a document that also violates the separation of church and state: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws and Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind required that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness… We…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name and Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States….with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” If indeed, secularism and separation of church and state are to be supreme values of this society, than I encourage the court to implement it to its full degree. Abolish school prayer, prohibit God from public places and remove “under God” from the Pledge; and in the process of doing so never look back at our founding you rejected, our liberty you diminished and our history you erased.