Vol. 9 No. 10 (October 1999) pp. 462-464.

SCHOOL PRAYER AND DISCRIMINATION: THE CIVIL RIGHTS OF RELIGIOUS MINORITIES AND DISSENTERS by Frank S. Ravitch. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999. 273 pp. Cloth $50.00.

Reviewed by Gregg Ivers, Department of Government, American University.

In 1974, I was twelve years old and in the seventh grade. For as long as I could remember, we began our school day with announcements over the intercom, read by a carefully selected and academically distinguished student. The announcements, in turn, were followed by a Bible verse from the New Testament and a prayer composed by the principal. Sometimes the principal offered the prayer, and sometimes the student did. I was a regular visitor to the principal's office but not much of a student, so I was never asked to read the announcements. Thankfully, that also meant I never found myself having to read from the Bible or offer a prayer composed by our principal.

I often wondered what I would have done. My family is Jewish, but, in those days, we were not the least bit observant. The only time I ever went to synagogue was to attend by friends' bar and bat mitzvahs. Even there, I felt weird. Here I was, from a Jewish background, and I had no idea what was going on. Ironically, I felt less uncomfortable during school as we went through the morning Bible and prayer rituals. Most of the class was Jewish, many were Catholic, some were Greek Orthodox, so it wasn't as if I was an outsider in a Christian environment. Protestants were not in the majority. Besides, no one really paid attention. Homeroom was a time to discuss after school plans, gossip about who was going steady and who was about to get dumped, and play paper football. Religion was the last thing on anybody's mind.

Then one day our intercom church services suddenly stopped. To this day, I have no idea why. Perhaps a parent brought some pressure to bear behind the scenes. Perhaps a teacher complained. Perhaps a county-level administrator got wind of what was happening and order our morning exercises halted. But here we were: a Deep South elementary school twelve years behind the curve in complying with ENGEL v. VITALE (1962) and ABINGTON v. SCHEMPP (1963), the Supreme Court's historic decisions banning state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. I don't recall any great sense of liberation on the part of students after our daily dose of religion ceased. For the most part, we made light of it. After all, there is something funny to most twelve and thirteen year-old boys when their buddies are reading from the New Testament the day before their bar mitzvahs. The attitude was closer to, "Hey, the joke's on you!"

In SCHOOL PRAYER AND DISCRIMINATION, Frank Ravitch has written a clear, careful and sensitive account of a problem that, even twenty-five years later, will not go away. Schools and, in some cases, entire school districts continue to flout the Court's decisions on school

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prayer. In some cases, state legislatures have passed laws that encourage schools to offer or permit on-site religious exercises; in other cases, schools, buffered by local public opinion, act in renegade fashion by disavowing the Court's decisions as Acts against God and press ahead with intercom prayer, prayer before football games, student-led prayers at assemblies and graduations, and so on. Anyone who follows this issue is familiar with the emotionally intense nature of this conflict and the frequency of clashes between those want the schools in the business of promoting religion and those who do not.

Ravitch centers his book around three major points. First, he argues that schools that continue to support and engage in religious exercises are violating the civil as well as First Amendment rights of religious minorities. Second, he addresses the social and political dynamics of why this form of religious discrimination continues to persist and, in some instances, has become more widespread. Third, he offers a model statute designed to prohibit state-sponsored religious exercises. The statute draws from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the law of sexual harassment, as defined by the Court's rulings and EEOC guidelines, and the Equal Access Act, a 1984 congressional law that permits student-led religious clubs to meet in schools after the school day has ended.

Ravitch makes a good point when he says that much of the current debate over boundaries of school prayer and religious expression in the schools is of little use in containing unconstitutional religious exercises. The vast majority of schools and school districts know the law and they comply with it. Lawyers who represent schools who are accused of violating their students' rights by not permitting on-site religious exercises find this litigation a tremendous drain on their resources. Schools face many more important challenges than trying to ensure that students receive a daily dose of God's word. Moreover, the public school population, even in smaller localities, has become more and more religiously diverse. Trying to devise a prayer or agree on a religious reading is impossible in many places.

It is in schools where the population is more homogenous and Christian fundamentalist that the religious rebirth finds its greatest support. Ravitch offers persuasive and extensive documentation of the critical role that the Christian Right has had in influencing the agenda of school boards, P.T.A.s and, in some cases, state legislatures. In place to support the political victories of the Christian Right is extremely sophisticated and well-financed litigation support. Ravitch points out the success that the American Center for Law and Justice, a Pat Robertson creation, has had in defending the political gains of Christian advocacy groups in court. Indeed, the influx of conservative religious groups into the litigation arena has had a tremendous impact on the dynamics of the church-state debate.

I believe that political scientists can benefit greatly from Ravitch's discussion of the religious equality guarantee as a civil rights issue. Introducing this angle into a classroom discussion on the Establishment Clause will require students to move away from the typical practice of analyzing past decisions and applying them to substitution hypotheticals and conceptualize the problem in a different way. For example, most students are not aware that many Christians oppose state-sponsored religion in the public schools. Groups such as the Baptist Joint Committee, the American Baptists Churches and the National Council of Churches have consistently opposed school prayer and

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Bible reading in the public schools for the last thirty-five years because they believe that such exercises water down religion in the name of politics and reduce religion's independence from the state. That stands in contrast to the position of most reform and conservative Jewish organizations, which believe that the American experiment with religious disestablishment has helped protect their status as equals in the religious milieu, even though they constitute distinct minorities. Ravitch's thorough discussion of the political and social context of the dynamics of church-state law and litigation might also freshen the minds of political scientists who study the relationship between law and the courts but don't spend enough time reading or thinking about how either really work in the real world.

Ravitch's approach might also serve to remind students and their professors of James Madison's similar approach to religious equality. In FEDERALIST No. 51, Madison wrote "in a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other the multiplicity of sects." Madison viewed religious disestablishment as both a mechanism for civil and religious piece. Madison's take on the Establishment Clause he later drafted is the subject of much disagreement, but few students of the subject dispute that an equal protection guarantee was an implicit assumption of the no-establishment principle. As Ravitch notes, so much time is taken up in the literature with what I like to call "chicken little" arguments about the Court's Establishment Clause decisions that few even pay attention to the importance that Madison gave to the equality dimension of religious freedom.

The model statute that Ravitch offers to deal with religious discrimination is certainly intriguing, but I'm afraid it won't be of much use to most political scientists. This is not a criticism; indeed, Ravitch is a law professor who has written a book for a legal audience. Political scientists who teach constitutional law might well borrow Ravitch's ideas for a class hypothetical, but it would take an awfully sophisticated undergraduate audience to comprehend all that is involved here. I get to teach some awfully bright students, but I don't have one who is ready to take on the nuances of Section 1983 remedies and the concept of vicarious liability for constitutional violations.

In sum, Frank Ravitch has written a fine book, one that offers a fair and thorough treatment of a difficult and vexing political and constitutional issue. It deserves a wide and attentive audience.



ENGEL V. VITALE, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).