Madalyn Murray O'Hair was successful before the U.S. Supreme Court in her case
contesting school prayer, the opening salvo of her life-long legal jihad
against organized religion. Her son's case was one of two bundled together
and addressed by the Supreme Court, whose decision effectively
banned school prayer, even voluntary school prayer.
The First Amendment lays out two clauses respecting religion: the non-establishment
clause and the free exercise clause: "Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof. . ." In considering school prayer, both are
involved, and yet in these historic cases the free exercise clause
got short shrift:
"Of the seven participating members of the court, only
Justice Potter Stewart dissented. 'I cannot see how an "official
religion" is established by letting those who want to say a prayer
to say it,' he argued. 'On the contrary, I think that to deny the
wish of these children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny
them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our
nation.'" (Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair, by Brian F. LeBeau, pp.
The government may not compel anyone to pray, and yet the government
cannot forbid those who wish to pray from so doing. Those children
who wish to pray should find protection under the shelter of the
free exercise clause, which may in some cases be in tension with the
establishment clause: ". . .'there are areas in which a doctrinaire
reading of the Establishment Clause leads to irreconcilable
conflict with the Free Exercise Clause.'" (Justice Potter Stewart,
quoted in Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair, by Brian F. LeBeau, p.
102). The Supreme Court erred in throwing the children's free
exercise rights under the bus, ostensibly to preserve the
The worst aspect of the school prayer controversy was the
insistence of some governmental participants in playing the prophet.
If there is one thing the First Amendment prohibits the government
from doing, it is from dictating the beliefs and practices of
churches. And yet here is Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, doing
just exactly that:
"On December 23, 1962, 'This Week' magazine published an
article by Tom Clark, entitled 'A Supreme Court Justice Speaks of
God.'. . .Clark was one of the nine justices who issued the
unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas,
which marked the beginning of the end of racially segregated public
schools. He was also, the following year, the justice assigned to
present the court's 8-1 decision in Abington School District v.
Shempp. . .
"Justice Clark's article went straight to the heart of
why demands for state-sponsored prayers in public schools are
dangerous to faith and morals. He first noted that 'The Bible tells
us "When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are. .
.standing on the corners of the streets that they may be seen of
man. . .when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou hast
shut the door, pray to the Father."' Acknowledging that there had
been 'quite a crusade recently for public prayers by our children'
he added 'little has been said in support of prayers by our children
at home. I submit that private prayer in the home would be much more
effective." (p. 57, Who's Afraid of Madalyn Murray O'Hair by Siarlys
The name for this is 'Caesaropapism,' it's the idea that it is up
to Caesar to tell the church what it believes, which the church has
somehow mistaken. It can be done with the best intentions in the
world, as when Constantine convened the bishops at Nicaea. It is
nevertheless always and inevitably unconstitutional under the First
Amendment; it isn't the government which defines church doctrine. If
this Supreme Court justice did indeed think the churches erred in
encouraging public, corporate prayer at the inauguration of new
activities such as a school day, he is not entitled to bring these
insights into his day job.
Those Christians in government who
disliked the civil religion and perceived it as a revival of the
outward observances of the Pharisees of old ought, if anyone must,
to have kept their religious views private. They may well have had a
point; a driving force of this mandated Cold War piety could easily
be heard as, 'We're holier than thou, Commie Pinko.' That there was
an undeniable note of self-celebration in this species of piety
provoked a reflex in Bible-literate observers. But it's the very
establishment clause, which they claim to uphold, which will not
allow them to impose their perceptions, right or wrong, upon their
co-religionists: "The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support
of no dogma, the establishment of no sect." (Watson v. Jones).
Would that it were no, not in theory but in fact! Unfortunately this kind of Caesaropapism is all over
the school prayer dispute; it is the main reason why there is no
objection to Muslim children praying in schools,— because in
the Muslim tradition, verbal, rote prayers are mandated at
scheduled times, it is a religion of outward observance— whereas,
they believe, Jesus discouraged such
observances. 'Prophets' like Tom Clark are without honor in their
own country, and ever will be so long as it lives under the First Amendment.
In reality the Supreme Court cannot tell a religious
establishment that its views are in error. This is the crux of the
free exercise clause: the government is helpless to determine
whether a given religious belief is true or false. This is so even
if the religious tenet in question is so dubious as to excite
allegations of fraud:
"The leading case on the subject is United States v.
Ballard (1944), which involved a prosecution for mail fraud. The
indictment charged that the defendants, organizers of the 'I
Am' cult, had mulcted money from elderly and ill people by falsely
representing that they had supernatural powers to heal and that they
themselves had communicated personally with Heaven and with Jesus
"The Court held that the free exercise clause would be
violated if the state were allowed to seek to prove to a jury that
the defendants' representations were false. Neither a jury nor any
other organ of government had power to decide whether asserted
religious experiences actually occurred." (The First
Amendment, Selections from the Encyclopedia of the American
Constitution, edited by Leonard W. Levy et al, Religious
Liberty, p. 448).
Does it really fall within the purview of the U.S. Government to tell
Christian citizens what Jesus intended their prayer life to be? No, it does not.
"Under the principles of separation of church and state
and religious liberty, it [the Supreme Court] held, neither a jury
nor any other organ of government had the competence to pass on
whether certain religious experiences actually occurred. A jury
could no more constitutionally decide that defendants had not shaken
hands with Jesus, as they claimed, than they could determine that
Jesus had not walked on the sea, as the Bible related."
(The First Amendment, Selections from the Encyclopedia of the American
Constitution, edited by Leonard W. Levy et al, Religion and Fraud,
The government needs to drop its prophetic function, which it cannot lawfully exercise,
and stop telling Christians how to be Christians. To be sure, the
kind of school prayers they used to have, the prayers addressed 'To
Whom It May Concern,' were an unlovely thing. It is a great mistake
to think that God delights in any and all prayer: "And when ye
spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when
ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of
blood." (Isaiah 1:15). However it is not self-evident
that Jesus intended to outlaw any and all audible, corporate prayer;
in the Garden of Gethsemane, He asks the disciples to join Him in
watching and praying: "And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth
them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one
hour?" (Matthew 26:40). If there should chance to be school-children
claiming they wish to pray just these sorts of prayers, however much
it may make the prophet hidden within the breast of a Supreme Court
justice blaze forth, the voice of the prophet must be stilled and
remain silent, as the law commands. The law is the First Amendment.
It is true that Jesus taught,
"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."
But the apostles did not understand that Jesus is here legislating
against any and all corporate prayer; they themselves indulged in the
"And being let go, they went to their own company, and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said unto them.
And when they heard that, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is:
Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things?"
They "lifted up their voice to God with one accord." Were they
simply violating the Lord's command of Matthew 6:6? Our governmental
'prophets' are bound to say that they were. But then such commended practices
as agreeing in prayer would be left impracticable:
"Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
Doing exactly what Jesus here commends would be cumbersome, to
say the least, if audible, public prayer is forbidden. People would
have to pass notes under the table, or make hand signals. Isn't it easier to
agree in prayer when you can hear what the other party is praying for? Therefore
it seems likely that Jesus is not vilifying public prayer as evil in itself. Rather it is, or can be,
an occasion for sin: if people allow public prayer to become a
competitive performance sport, then they are praying from pride and
vanity, not to communicate with God. Avoiding public prayer is a
strategy to avoid temptation, like detouring around the street where
there is a bakery, not because there is anything wrong with that
street, but because the bakery with its goodies might prove too
tempting. While certainly the center of gravity of the Christian's
prayer life is to be the prayer closet, the public square has not
been ruled out altogether, if resort can be made there without
falling into the sin Jesus condemned: 'Look at how pious I am.' Or
so the apostles concluded, in good faith. Certainly the point is
arguable. How are cults born? A teacher, a guide, points out with
his finger a Bible verse, while blocking with the flat of his hand
the remainder of the passage. Our governmental 'prophets' confine
their attention to one verse, heedless that Bible-readers who
include other verses in their survey may simply not share their
Prior to the 1960's, many Baptist churches included in their
statements of faith a blurb commending the separation of church and
state. Part of the tragic fallout from Mrs. O'Hair's career is that
she convinced millions of Americans that separation of church and
state was, not a good thing as had previously been thought, but a
bad thing, the prelude to the triumph of atheism: