School Prayers & the Founding Fathers
WHAT WAS THE original intention of the First Amendment’s injunction against laws “respecting an establishment of religion”? That question is being asked once again in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision against the nonsectarian prayer prescribed by the New York State Board of Regents for daily recitation in the schools. The hostile reaction to the decision reveals how little the establishment clause is understood, how welcome to certain groups are the many breaches in the “wall of separation” between religion and government. These breaches are the more easily justified if the Court, as its critics insist, has really misread, indeed perverted, the intentions of the framers of the First Amendment. But the critics are wrong, their history faulty.
No one, of course, would really permit his judgment of a contemporary church-state issue to be determined by an antiquarian examination of the original meaning of the clause against establishments of religion. There is, to be sure, a comforting assurance in having the authority of the past coincide with present legislative preferences, and it is an old American custom to invoke the names of the framers to buttress an argument. However, it is also an old American custom to dismiss the framers when it becomes clear that they cannot be conscripted into service. After all, one can always argue that what passed for wisdom in their era may very well by now have passed out of date. Even so, few would openly reject the principles on which the Constitution was based.
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