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They’ll Have to Pry, Um, My Cold Dead Hand from My Other Cold Dead Hand

- February 23, 2009


bq. The issue of devotional activity in the public schools has long been a staple of the U.S. Supreme Court’s agenda, but knowledge of the local implementation of school prayer policy remains limited to the Court’s earliest decisions. To what extent are schools presently engaged in religious activities prohibited by the Court? This study addresses this question through a survey in which recent high school graduates provided data on the level and types of devotional practices in their schools. The results suggest that there continues to be resistance to the Supreme Court, especially in the South, in rural and less educated communities, and in areas with higher concentrations of conservative Christians.

That is from a new paper by Kevin McGuire. It’s something I always wanted to write about myself — even though my upbringing in the South didn’t consist of much school prayer. (I seem to remember that we observed a moment of silence for some part of seventh grade. And my high school soccer team used to pray the Lord’s Prayer before we acted in a most un-Christian fashion on the field. But that’s it. Oh wait, there was probably an invocation at my high school graduation.[1])

McGuire’s dataset is not large: a survey of about 200 undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who attended some 145 different public schools. (He plans to survey high school principals next.) Nevertheless, the findings are striking. Below I’ve pasted the money graph:


The results show that more than half of the Southern schools in the sample do not comply with the Court’s decisions on graduation prayers and prayers at sporting events. A quarter of Southern schools don’t even comply with Engel v. Vitale. Graduation prayers are also common among schools outside the South.

These numbers could even be under-estimates. McGuire concludes:

bq. At the same time, when viewed against earlier findings on the impact of the Court’s first decisions on religion in the schools, the levels of noncompliance documented here are quite stark. Even 10 years after the Court struck down prayer at high school commencements, for example, a good many public schools in this sample still adhere to the practice, and 40 years after the fact, organized prayer is still reported to a sizable degree. Moreover, these data are from public schools whose graduates go on to college. There seems little doubt that the public schools that do not regularly produce collegiate timber are systematically different from those that do. If these schools are smaller, more rural, and concentrated in the South, then the rate of devotional activities documented here is surely an underestimate. So, not only is there a considerable number of schools that are ignoring the Court, there are probably a good many more. Seen in this way, the resistance to the Court’s policies seems substantial indeed.

The paper is here (pdf).

fn1. A sidenote: because my high school lacked a large enough space, and because other schools used the available secular spaces, my graduation was held at the First Assembly of God Church — a.k.a. the “God Dome” because of its octagonal structure. This picture begins to give you the idea. This aerial is even better.