While there certainly are some in the community who were looking forward to a state vs. religion showdown in the courtroom, the Hall County School system’s decision to settle the lawsuit over prayer in the athletic program at Chestatee High School was the right choice to make.
In the end, the school system agreed to do more to educate system personnel about what is and what is not constitutional behavior, and the system’s insurance carrier agreed to pay some $22,500 in legal fees incurred by the American Humanist Association in filing the lawsuit last year.
That’s a positive outcome to a darkly negative cloud that had hovered over the county’s schools for the second half of the last school year. Having it resolved before another year starts is a positive move.
Many of those who would have liked to see the case go to court never fully understood the issues at hand. The right of students to pray while on school grounds was never at issue. Nor was there any question about the right of school personnel to pray. The issue was whether school employees acting in their official capacities could lead students in organized prayer as part of school functions.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said in the past that doing so is unconstitutional, that by engaging in such behavior, those teachers and coaches may unfairly ostracize some students, open others to ridicule and potentially insult those of different religious beliefs who may be part of a student group.
Had the lawsuit moved forward, there were really only two end results that were possible.
The courts could have found that the Chestatee staff members accused of inappropriately leading student prayers had not in fact done anything wrong. In that case, both sides would have invested tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and life would largely have gone on as before, except that the schools likely would have been more cautious than ever since the issue had been raised.
The second result would have been that the courts found the school system did act in an unconstitutional manner. In that case, both sides would have spent the same tens of thousands on legal fees, the school system may have faced a fine, the careers of individual employees likely would have been negatively impacted, and the school system almost certainly would have been ordered to initiate additional training of its staff in regard to expression of religious beliefs on campus.
By settling the case, the school system admits no wrongdoing, no individual educators are impacted beyond the publicity they already have received, legal fees are kept to a minimum and the promise of refresher courses on what is constitutionally acceptable behavior may well prove a career-saving boon to some professional educators.
To understand why the settlement makes sense, you have to look at the issue logically, rather than emotionally, and this is a very emotional issue for many people, on both sides of the religious divide.
For those who believe in prayer, having the right to do so anytime, anyplace and with others of similar beliefs is sacrosanct. For those who do not believe in prayer, protecting their children from being exposed to religious ideas in which they do not believe, with the possibility of ridicule or bullying, is just as important.
Both groups are among the taxpayers who support the school system. They constitute the “public” in public schools.
It is worth repeating that the issue isn’t whether prayer is allowed in school, but rather whether those in authority have the right to impose their personal beliefs upon students who look to them for guidance and leadership.
And before you jump to the keyboard with angry protestations that government employees should be able to lead students in religious prayers if they are comfortable in doing so, ask yourself if you would be as quick to defend the position if the teacher in question was Muslim, Hindu or Wiccan. Remember, these are public schools with staffers of many religious beliefs, some with none.
Either the practice is right or it’s wrong. You can’t make an argument both ways.
The expression of faith is a personal thing for most people. The courts have said that the government, including its schools, should leave religious instruction and direction to parents, families and churches.
There are many who disagree with those earlier rulings by the courts, but if we are to be a nation of laws, we can’t pick and choose which ones we will follow and which we can ignore as we choose.
Students praying on their own is fine. Students leading other students in prayers is fine. School employees praying on their own is fine. The issue in question is whether school employees, as representatives of the government, can lead students in prayer during school events. To that the courts have said no, repeatedly, in case after case over a period of 40 years or more.
The school system made the right call in putting the lawsuit to bed and not allowing it to become an ongoing distraction. As a private business, we can and do encourage those who believe in doing so to pray for our nation, our schools and our young people, but that’s not a position our government entities are empowered to take.