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Voluntary school prayer is legal.

Overall, I applaud Prof. Erwin Chemerinsky for his viewpoint on "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance ("One Nation Under The Constitution: Why The Court Should Rule Against 'Under God' In The Pledge," December 2003 Church & State). But with all due respect to Chemerinsky, I was concerned about the statement that opens his main argument: that "[f]or more than 40 years, the U. S. Supreme Court has said that even voluntary prayer in public schools violates the First Amendment...."

Based on my reading of the pertinent Supreme Court rulings, this statement is dangerously incomplete and misleading.

"Voluntary" needs to be carefully qualified. While Chemerinsky's ensuing sentences give some sense of the Court's rulings and reasoning, they do not provide sufficient qualification of this statement with regard to what has actually been ruled constitutionally impermissible (and permissible).

Personal, private, individual, or even respectfully discrete and voluntary group (e.g., lunch-table) prayers among public schoolchildren have never been ruled impermissible. Nor should they be. It is only organized, officially sponsored or required prayers and prayer-time--or public prayers by individuals that suggest or clearly enjoy official authorization, or that coerce religious expression on captive audiences--that have been rightly judged by the Court to be in violation of the First Amendment.

The danger of inadequately qualified summary statements such as Chemerinsky's is that they feed a general misconception, and the understandable ire of many religious citizens, by suggesting that all "voluntary" prayer has categorically been ruled impermissible in public institutions. Please do correct me if I have misread or misunderstood the pertinent Court rulings or their apparent intent. But voluntary and personal prayer, by or among individuals as private citizens, that is not initiated, required, encouraged or sanctioned by governments or their officials, is constitutionally protected religious expression in public institutions. The same is true for irreligious forms of expression.

In order to avoid some of the polarization, misunderstanding and misrepresentation that characterizes much debate over such issues, and to persuade citizens of the reasonableness of the Court's (and Chemerinsky's) general aims, unusual care is warranted in our summary statements of what constitutional law prescribes--and proscribes.

Frank L. Pasquale, Ph.D.

Portland, Oregon
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Title Annotation:Letters
Author:Pasquale, Frank L.
Publication:Church & State
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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