Mr. Cage is doing graduate work in economics at the University of Virginia.
The decisions of the Supreme Court on prayer in public schools apply only to religious practices in public institutions, of course. In order to understand these decisions, it is first necessary to understand the nature of a public institution under our government.
In spite of the practical deficiencies in our political system, our government operates on a democratic basis: each person has one vote to cast for the candidate of his choice. The elected officials are then supposed to do what they believe is their constituents’ wishes (insofar as they believe it is the right thing to do). The political action thus taken is kept in check by the court system, to which every person has access. In this way, minorities are protected from unrestrained majority rule.
It should not be surprising that those people who profess atheism should take the matter of prayers in public schools to the courts; for after all, it was an action for which our system of government provides. Praying certainly discriminates against the atheist. And according to our philosophy and system of government, when this occurs in a public institution, he has legal recourse to the courts. This explains why the nature of a public institution is central to the discussion of the right to pray.
A public institution in the United States is not only publicly accessible but is also publicly supported. There is no hedging on this support: everyone contributes taxes, without regard to any specific characteristic of the individual, such as race or religion. Thus it follows that what is publicly provided should not discriminate in favor of or against people on any such basis as race or religion. Those who pay for it (theoretically, everyone) should also have the use of it, under a system which gives each person an equal share of participation in the government and which respects all people, whether they belong to the majority or not. And, as they pay without regard to their race, religion, and so forth, so, too, should they have access to the public facilities without discrimination against them on such grounds. This must be the real nature of a public institution in the United States if we adhere to our principles of government.
Thus it is that in no public institution can those of us who believe in God rightfully impose our beliefs and practices on those who don’t. Practically speaking, such imposition is not avoided by "voluntary" participation in the prayer. For whether the praying is voluntary or not, all taxpayers—atheist and theist alike—are providing shelter, light, and warmth for the theists’ practices. Thus the atheist is compelled to contribute to practices in which he does not want to participate in any way; and further, everyone is aware that such practices are easily avoidable by the public institution, and are not at all necessary to accomplish the announced purpose of the institution.
A Duty To Educate?
The central issue here, hinging on the nature of public institutions, is not whether a government institution should assume the responsibility for prayer; instead, it is whether or not the government should assume the responsibility for educating the people. Just as there are a multitude of opinions on religion, there are also disagreements in virtually all areas of education as to what is right (or best). This shows up especially in colleges, where various schools have reputations for different viewpoints.
This means that in a public school where specific opinions are taught, other viewpoints are necessarily neglected: to have a certain opinion neglected is as much of an affront to the artist, economist, or political scientist who holds that opinion as it is to the atheist. Unlike the situation existing at the college level, where one can select the college which teaches the viewpoint with which the student (or parent) is most in sympathy, the public school system assigns students according to geographical location. In fact, no public school official has ever been so bold as to say that his school teaches a particular viewpoint in, for example, economics, to the exclusion of all others. Thus, no matter what method of assigning students is used, the education available to the student in any school is largely of arbitrary content; it is necessarily opinionated.
This is not consistent with our philosophical and legal concept of a public institution: public facilities cannot rightfully discriminate against certain peoples’ opinions, for the whole of the populace pays for the institutions, without regard to whether the taxpayer agrees with the viewpoint being taught. There is again no escape offered by private schooling where public schooling is compulsorily financed, just as "voluntary praying" is no solution, for citizens pay taxes in support of public schools even if their children go to private schools. Perhaps a method more (but not totally) consistent with our principles is to have all opinions taught. Any teacher, however, will readily attest to the impossibility of the task, and most students will agree as to its tediousness. Nor would most parents favor such practices.
Outside the Realm of Government Competence
The answer to the "right to pray" in public institutions is the same as the answer to the "right" to teach any particular theory or opinion on any other matter: there is no "right" involved. It is outside the realm of public institutions. Thus it is that general education, as well as religious instruction and practices, cannot be provided by public institutions within the framework of our original philosophy of government. Any institutional changes (e.g., an amendment to the Constitution) to permit prayers in public schools can only serve to distort that framework which has not only proved to be workable, but is internally consistent with and logically deducible from the original premise. The crucial question is not how we can legally institute praying in public schools, but rather can public schools rightfully provide any religious practices or teach any subject on which there is disagreement. The court decisions pointed up the difficulty in regard to religious practices; there remains, however, the broader question of whether public schools can rightfully advance certain opinions in preference to others in areas outside of religion.
Further examination of the entire matter of "rights" suggests that the education of free people should come in schools which those people choose to establish, support, and attend of their own volition. For it is only in these and similar private institutions that the individual has the right to pray, regardless of what other people may believe.