Over the years, the culture war has evolved. In 1980s, there was a focus on school prayer and pornography. In 1990s, we heard more about Ten Commandments displays and gays in the military. In the 2000s, it was civil unions and immigration.
There are some constants – abortion rights and guns, for example – but issues tend to take turns at the top of the culture war to-do list.
It’s why it comes as something of a surprise to see Amendment 2 on the ballot in Missouri today, trying to change the state constitution to “clarify” students’ prayer rights in public schools. (Contrary to popular myth, school prayer is perfectly legal, so long as the schools stay out of it.)
The New York Times editorial board makes the case today that the Missouri measure is inviting “havoc in classrooms by giving students the right to refuse to read anything or do any assignments that they claim offends their religious views.”
The ballot summary about the amendment says it would ensure right of citizens to express their religious beliefs without infringement and students the right to pray in schools. The actual words the State Legislature approved in the amendment, however, would do more.
They would allow students who believe in creationism, for example, to opt out of assignments on evolution: “no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.” This language would almost certainly lead to litigation about who controls the curriculum in public schools.
Another change could lead to litigation about where nonsectarian, constitutional invocations cross the line into sectarian, unconstitutional prayers; instead of seeking the Almighty’s blessing, for example, officials at public events could ask for Jesus’s blessing.
The reason school prayer faded as a hot-button issue is because, in time, even critics of Supreme Court rulings on the matter realized there was no point in fighting for a right that already exist. A student wants to pray before class? That’s already legal. Students want to invite other students to religious services? That’s legal, too.
But I guess in Missouri, the issue has apparently made a comeback for no apparent reason. This isn’t a positive development.