Recent events in Florida perpetuate the perennial conflict between church and state, or more specifically, that between church and school.  In Clay County, Florida, Pastor Ron Baker of the Russell Baptist Church in Green Cove Springs has been holding prayer meetings around the flagpoles at Clay County’s four schools, commonly at 8:15 AM, which is apparently during school hours.  The point of this timing would seem to be to involve students and even school staff.  Prayers around school flagpoles are nothing new, but before dissecting this latest battle in the church/state war, it may be worthwhile to explore several pertinent facts.

Despite the earnest protestations of some, prayer has not been “removed” from America’s public schools.  As the old saw goes, as long as there is algebra, there will always be prayer in the schools.

In the 1962 US Supreme Court decision in Engel v. Vitale, the conflict was over a state written and mandated prayer imposed each day on New York school children.  The Court found that mandate to be a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.  Some will no doubt argue with indignation that the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” does not appear in the Constitution and they are correct—as far as it goes.  However, if they know the origin of that phrase, they are being misleading at best.

In 1802, A Baptist congregation in Danbury, Connecticut was embroiled in a tax dispute with their community.  They wrote a letter to Jefferson, the man most associated with the law relating to religious liberty, asking what the Founders intended in the establishment of the First Amendment.  In a January 1, 1802 reply, Jefferson wrote that their intent was “building a wall of separation between church & state.”  The application of that intention (and its limitations) has been debated since.

In the public schools, the application is badly misunderstood, but ironically simple.  School officials—teachers among them—may not proselytize, may not require students to participate in any religious observance such as prayers, and may not lead such religious observances.  However, as long as their behavior is not disruptive or inappropriate, students and staff may pray, read the Bible, and in other ways observe their faith.

What would be inappropriate or disruptive?  Leaping up during class to call down God’s wrath on an “evil” English teacher.  Insisting on reading the Bible when a class is doing other work.  Putting down a prayer rug, facing Mecca and loudly praying during social studies, or anything else that disrupts the order of a school or undermines the ability of teachers to provide a proper environment for learning.  Quietly praying before a meal, discussing faith between classes or at lunch, holding a Bible study or praying at a flagpole before school hours or similarly non-disruptive acts are obviously constitutional and reasonable.  Teachers may also discuss the history and beliefs of various sects and of course, include discussion of verses from the Bible and other works in their classes.  It’s virtually impossible to properly teach history, social studies or literature without such practices.

This, I hope, is a non-controversial proposition: teachers must have the authority to establish and maintain an environment conductive to learning, free from the whims of outside interests and the misbehavior of students.

Tina Korbe at Hot Air, with whom I routinely agree, has waded into these turbulent waters, surprisingly on the side of Pastor Baker.  Or perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised as some conservatives tend to reflexively side with faith against public schools.  Korbe writes:

Where exactly does it say in the Constitution that government employees aren’t allowed to join a prayer session? If I remember rightly, it actually says, “Congress should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In general, the courts have held that the free exercise clause covers religiously motivated actions and not just internal belief, so wouldn’t a prayer session count as “the free exercise” of religion? And how is “prayer session” even defined? Does it extend to personal prayers, prayed soundlessly in the stress of a school day? It’s unconstitutional for the government to force employees to pray — but the Constitution certainly doesn’t forbid them from doing so. Perhaps the school board simply means to imply the government isn’t paying employees to pray; it’s paying them to work — and a case could be made for that, I suppose.

The Clay County Schools’ attorney has issued an opinion that the meetings around the flagpoles are a violation of the establishment clause.  This is, of course, debatable, and many schools allow just that sort of thing, but not during school hours because that forces students and even some teachers to choose between their obligations and their faith.  If these observances are occurring during school hours, they are clearly a problem and may be more about a pastor seeking publicity than a genuine expression of faith.

Pastor Baker and his followers are unrestrained in following their faiths and may do so at their church, their homes, and everywhere else safety and propriety will allow, but not on school grounds during school hours.

But, even if we accept the school board’s statement, how does Baker’s prayer meeting violate it? Unless Baker is a school district employee — and he doesn’t appear to be — what jurisdiction does the school board have over his actions at all? And the meeting occurs before the school day technically starts. Is it just that school employees might join the session?

That seems to be it — because another school official has suggested Baker compromise and conduct his meeting even earlier — before school employees are even present on the school grounds.

Ms. Korbe suggests that the sessions occur before the first bell rings, but one would assume as parents and children are arriving to begin the day.   And of course the school district has jurisdiction over his actions.  School officials may allow or remove essentially anyone from school grounds for the safety of students and staff and to ensure that a proper educational environment is maintained.  They also have a legal obligation to enforce the law as it relates to schools, and that is what is happening here, whether one agrees or not.

The greatest harm suffered by Pastor Baker and those who support him will be that they are no longer allowed to conduct these meetings around school flagpoles.—or at least not precisely when he wishes.  There are, of course, myriad other options for them, just none quite so publicity rich.

But Baker remains resolute: He’ll meet anyone who wants to pray at the flagpole at 8:15 a.m. — just like he has for 12 years. In fact, since the controversy started, the crowd at the flag has only grown.

Perhaps Pastor Baker’s motives are pure and related only to the constitutional principal involved, but it would not be hard to believe that a far more human and less admirable motivation is involved.  No doubt “the crowd at the flag has only grown.”  One suspects, however, that when the media spotlight moves on, as it always does, the crowd will once again dissipate.

There is, however, a far more significant and practical reason to disallow such practices: equal access.  If the Clay County Schools allow this Baptist group access to school property, personnel and students, the law clearly mandates equal access for any like group.  Would the schools—or even Pastor Baker—be so intent on defending the Constitution when the local white supremacist church shows up?  How about the local Muslim congregation, or the Wiccans?  Perhaps a group of Mormons, Hare Krishnas, followers of the Rev. Moon, Satan worshipers, or would any other self-proclaimed or established faith one might care to imagine provoke similar righteous indignation in Pastor Baker?

But that wouldn’t happen!  Ah, but it already has in a great many schools across the nation.  For that reason, most allow no sectarian groups to meet on school property and do not allow them the use of school resources.  Again, this is hardly hindrance to the practice of faith.  Churches can’t meet at or use the resources of a great many publically supported facilities, but that does not deny them the free exercise of their faiths.  The freedom to worship does not require or allow worship at any time, place and manner one might demand.  The inability to pray near flagpoles, outdoors, will surely not be the destruction of the Baptist faith.

Erring on the side of caution—if that is indeed what the Clay County Schools are doing in this case—is a reasonable response to an emotional and divisive issue.  This approach harms no one, and students and staff are still free to pray, read the Bible, and otherwise profess their faith at the Clay County Schools and elsewhere.  Pastor Baker may be upset, but thousands of ministers manage vibrant and fruitful ministries without praying near school flagpoles.  One would hope that Pastor Baker could do the same.

Come to think of it, I don’t recall any part of Christian theology that requires praying near flagpoles or on school grounds.  I’m reasonably sure that’s not in the Bible either.