Many controversial bills were heard this week, among them was HB289. This bill aims to repeal the ability of public elementary schools to authorize the recitation of the Lord’s prayer. Supporters of the bill spoke today before the House Education Committee and claimed it is unconstitutional. They claimed that it is unnecessary to have a law on the books which could lead to a law suit, if challenged.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that this bill has nothing to do with students making the choice to recite the prayer. This bill is strictly related to a school’s ability to authorize the prayer among students. Supporters of the bill claimed that HB289 violates the First Amendment and in particular, the separation of church and state “clause.”
What supporters may not even be aware of, is the fact that separation of church and state is not found in one single official founding document. The only place it can be found is in a letter from Thomas Jefferson, written in December of 1801, addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. This Baptist Association was very concerned at the time about the government interfering in the religious affairs of the church. President Jefferson wrote to them, assuring the church that, as President, he would make sure the government would be restricted and that there would be a wall between church and state so that the church would be protected from government persecution.
For well over a century, Jefferson’s letter was invoked in numerous Supreme Court hearings and decisions. Each time his letter was referenced, the entirety of his letter was used, until a Supreme Court case in 1947 called Everson vs. Board of Education. This would the first time since Jefferson’s letter was used in these cases, where his letter was NOT used in its entirety but was only used to reference his “wall between church and state” quote. Well, of course, if you take a quote out of the context of its original meaning, you can create any narrative you want around it. That is exactly what the Supreme Court did here. And today we are stuck with a decision that established law and precedence which the Framers never intended.
Supporters of HB289 kept going back to the First Amendment, claiming that a school’s authorization of prayer violates the Constitution. The religious liberty section of the First Amendment of the US Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That means the US Constitution prohibits the establishment of a NATIONAL religion, but it does not apply to states individually, which is where the 10th amendment comes into play. The 10th amendment states, “The powers not delegate to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or the people.” This means if a state constitution does not prohibit the establishment of a religion, it would be constitutional to, in fact, establish a religion within the respective state, which most states did have up until the 1860’s.
Supporters of HB289 refused to realize that the First Amendment only applies to the federal government, not states. There is nothing in the New Hampshire Constitution that prohibits public schools from authorizing the recitation of any prayer. Therefore, this becomes a local control issue.
There is something to be said about the importance of prayer and the affect it has on our culture, but we don’t have to get into that. The fact is, prayer, the Bible, and public declarations to God were very common for about 200 years following the ratification of the US Constitution.