Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Prayer in Public Schools

I'm old enough to remember praying aloud as a class in the public school setting.  It seems to me that in 1st grade Miss Ross asked students to say the blessing as we were lined up to go to the cafeteria.  Most likely it was the rote "God is good, God is great..." prayer.    And I don't remember if there was a prayer involved, but I do remember Mrs. Allen reading from a children's devotional book of some sort every morning in 5th grade.

Mind you, this was all in the early to mid 1960's when most American families still attended church or synagogue of some sort. It was a different cultural landscape.

Then, in that same decade the SCOTUS handed down decisions prohibiting school sponsored prayers.  School employees could not require prayers during the school day or during extra-curricular school sanctioned activities.  As a result conservative/fundamentalist Christians cried out that prayer had been banned from the public schools.  But, had it?

It was not unusual for a school principal or a superintendent to hand down regulations regarding prayer at school, taking the law into their own hands and forbidding all prayer, even student led/initiated prayers from the school campus.  But clearly, that was not the intent of the law.   "The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that public schools cannot sponsor an official prayer or coerce students into praying. But students generally can pray at any time, as long as it’s not disruptive." *

Still, hosts of football teams huddled together to say "The Lord's Prayer" before a game.  But coaches (school employees) found engaging with their students were told to cease and desist by school administrators fearing protests from the ACLU and other liberal watchdog organizations.

All these prohibitions added to the Law only led to conservatives crying "foul" and looking for candidates in the judiciary as well as legislatures and executive branches who would pledge to "return" prayer to the schools.  But, had prayer been banned and was bringing government sanctioned prayer into the classrooms and locker rooms really what was wanted?

 First, it is impossible to ban prayer from anywhere.  Prayer is utterance to God, and if our God is all everything certainly He can hear a prayer spoken only from the heart, can He not?  No one has to pray aloud or from a kneeling position to get God's attention.

Second, the SCOTUS has consistently allowed for "student led prayers" at school functions.  Even though they may be minors, they still have certain constitutionally  guaranteed rights, two of which are freedom of speech and religious liberty.

Recently, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Joe Grogan cited the 2018 case of students at Honey Grove Middle School in Texas who gathered in the school lunchroom to pray for a former classmate hurt in a car accident, only to be warned by their principal not to do it again. When they prayed the next day, the principal moved them behind a curtain.  That was an infringement of their rights.  The principal was wrong if they were simply praying.  After all, 90% of the other students in the lunchroom were also involved in some sort of conversation.  And if you've been in a middle school cafeteria in recent years, you know that much of that conversational language is less than wholesome.

Third, if we truly want school sanctioned prayer (as we had prior to the early 1960's) then we shouldn't object when someone of another religion leads in that prayer.  We very well may be exposing our students to a spiritual pluralism that is unwanted. If a Muslim teacher or student is selected to say the daily prayer as school announcements are being read in home room, do not protest.

You can't have it both ways. "We want prayers, but we only want our prayers" doesn't work.  It isn't 1962 anymore, and in case you haven't noticed, not only do most families not attend church, many who are religiously fervent are not Christian. 

What do we do?  What do we say? 

My suggestion is that we teach our children to pray.  Teach them at home.  Teach them at church.  And let them know anytime, anywhere our God is ready to hear their prayers, on the way to school, in between classes, in the cafeteria, before and while they compete in athletics.  But teach them that not everyone believes like we do, so don't try and force others to pray with your or even to hear you pray.  If another needs your prayers, let him/her know you're praying for him/her.  Don't interrupt a class to pray aloud.  (But you might want to pray silently as the teacher hands you that test!)

If, as some have for the past 50 years, continuing to crusade for a constitutional amendment to "return prayers to schools", we had better be ready for an outcome we don't like.  Most of us would do better to encourage our students to pray often at school, even with their friends in a voluntary, spontaneous moment than be coerced by the state to pray who knows what.

I'm glad to see a President who wishes to protect our rights to pray.  I would not wish to see anything mandating prayer in the public schools.

* Trump issues new rule ensuring prayer in schools is protected. 
  The Washington Times, January 16, 2020