You may have heard that prayer has been taken out of public schools, that throughout much of the United States, students are forbidden to exercise their freedom of religion. According to many conservative believers, the 1962 court case of Engel v. Vitale resulted in a ban on school prayer which has led to a gradual moral decline in America.1 Petitions and pleas to reinstate prayer for school children can be found all over the internet, as well as many other places. But amidst all the fury, there is a glaring and slightly amusing misconception. Prayer has not actually been removed from public schools, it turns out.
I. A Convenient Myth
In New Hyde Park, New York, school administrators had composed a prayer for students to recite at the beginning of each school day. It read as follows:
Families of the students brought their concerns before the judicial system, arguing that the prayer was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. Among those groups opposing the prayer were the American Ethical Union, the American Jewish Committee, and the Synagogue Council of America, all religious organizations. The Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that it was unconstitutional for state officials to compose and require the recitation of any prayer. Justice Hugo Black explained the court’s decision:
Does this remove prayer from public schools? Only one kind: prayer conducted by school officials. Being that public schools are institutions of the state, educators and administrators are employed by the government, and as the Establishment Clause dictates, government is not to show favor to religion. This simply means that no teacher, coach, principal, or other school official can lead students in prayer. Despite what the media and Christian activists may claim, students are still quite free to pray at school on their own time. No one is stopping school children from silently praying before a test or bowing their head before a meal at the lunch table.
Subsequent courtcases involving school prayer have not deviated from this. In Wallace v. Jaffree, it was ruled that school administration cannot institute a moment of voluntary prayer and ask students to participate. Lee v. Weisman established that a school may not circumvent the law by inviting a religious cleric to speak at events. The ruling in Santa Fe ISD v. Doe determined that schools also cannot use students to deliver prayers over a P.A. system, because the use of school property, at school-sponsored events, over the school’s loudspeaker system, by someone representing the student body, under supervision of school faculty, and in accordance with school policies that encourage prayer, is public, school-endorsed speech. “Regardless of the listener’s support for, or objection to, the message, an objective Santa Fe High School student will unquestionably perceive the inevitable pregame prayer as stamped with her school’s seal of approval”.3
The only thing that has been banned from schools is state-sponsored prayer. Spreading the lie that kids are no longer permitted to pray in public schools may be an issue of misunderstanding, but there is often a clear agenda at work too. Incitements to ‘let prayer back in school’ are frequently accompanied by warnings for America to get right with god. The students’ freedoms are not always the concern for these activists, but they may hide behind them in order to pursue their own interests of pushing religion back into schools and deeper into mainstream society. This reveals one very good reason for why separation of church and state is so important.
II. Why Can’t School Officials Pray?
Is it unfair to allow the students a right to voluntary prayer, while the school officials do not have the same freedom? As I’ve already mentioned, those on the school administration are employees of the state. When you are hired as an employee at any job, you voluntarily give up certain freedoms. If you want to keep your job, you cannot share information with competing companies, you cannot speak ill of your superiors, you cannot sexually harass your co-workers, and so on. These are terms of employment that you agree to abide by, in exchange for compensation provided by the company. Likewise, the U.S. government has terms of employment that are laid out in the Constitution, and one of those terms happens to be that government and its employees must abstain from respecting an establishment of religion.
Educators are perfectly free to pray privately on their own time, in the teacher’s lounge, between classes, or after the students have gone home for the day. They are not allowed to lead or advocate any public prayers though. This is not just because of the Establishment Clause, but it is also in the best interest of the students and their families. Imagine if a teacher offered to pray with a group of students and then proceeded to invoke not god, but Satan for the prayer. There would undoubtedly be outrage. Parents do not want teachers subjecting their children to religious ideals that are not their own. And sadly, another fact that rarely seems to come up in these discussions is that there are even many Christian students who do not want their religion broadcast daily at their school. As someone who grew up in an overtly Christian home and regularly attended church services twice a week, I did not mind the absence of religious favoritism in school. No one ever tried to stop me from praying or bringing my bible to class, so what would I have had to complain about?
This is something I still do not understand. Why does it matter so much that your belief in prayer is broadcast to everyone else? Teachers, students, and administrators are free to pray in private at almost any time they choose. The desire to initiate group prayer and to announce prayer over loudspeakers seems more about beating your chest for your faith then practicing it in any humble, reverent way. Jesus advises his followers specifically not to pray in this manner, in Matthew 6:5-6:
III. The Limits of Student Prayer
Occasionally there are reports of student prayer being interrupted or reprimanded by school officials, and these stories often feed the fire of religious activists looking to tell it on the mountain top that prayer has been banned from schools. Usually these reports are mere anecdotes and hearsay, and as of yet, the Supreme Court has never ruled against a student’s individual right to private prayer. Nonetheless, there are some important notes to keep in mind about the limits of voluntary prayer in public schools. A student is free to pray however and whenever they want, so long as their praying is not too distracting and complies with school policy on classroom behavior. Understandably, you may ask how that really respects the students’ free exercise of religion.
The truth is that public schools are an exception to how the Bill of Rights is applied in America. This is not because any atheistic cabal of liberal judges is trying to strip god and religion from every facet of life, because even private religious schools do not apply the Bill of Rights in full force. The purpose of a school is to educate, and if there are many distractions present, it makes that purpose difficult to achieve. Free speech is limited by school policies forbidding profanity, graphic images on clothing, and in some cases, references to drugs, sexuality, and so forth. Conservative Christians typically defend this limitation on the civil rights of students, as do I. Schools need to have some standard for acceptable behavior to maintain order in the classroom.
While specific inclusions in these standards are open to debate, it is not hard to imagine how prayer could interrupt a lesson and take focus away from the teacher. If no restrictions are placed on prayer, a Muslim student would be free to lay down their prayer mat on the floor in the center of a classroom, kneel on it, and pray towards Mecca, several times throughout the day. I don’t think I need to explain that this would be quite an interruption of the learning process. Distracting prayer wastes valuable time that could be spent on education, diverting attention to a student wanting to show off for his/her peers. This is really not that different from the distraction produced by a student who decides to cuss out his teacher in the middle of a class.
Loud and visually disruptive prayer may be stopped by teachers, not for the act of praying, but for the distracting nature of it. Of course, a child sitting still at their desk, praying silently with eyes closed, is not loud or disruptive behavior. This is protected by the Free Exercise Clause, and as I’ve already stated, I have yet to hear of any courtcase instructing otherwise. Limits on student prayer exist only to preserve order in classrooms and see that the educational process continues without much interruption. If every religious group were allowed to pray whenever and however they choose, and each of those groups began to take advantage of such a policy, then before you know it, the entire reason of being at school (learning) would be lost in hours of faithful chest-beating. The purpose of schools is to educate, not to procrastinate and not to indoctrinate.
IV. A Few Final Objections
If the students of a school are all Christian and would like to have prayers recited over the P.A. system every day, why shouldn’t they be able to?
This begins from an unrealistic premise, in my opinion, because no schools always and forever have only Christian students. Even private Christian schools often have students of other beliefs, and like I said before, not all Christian students want school-sponsored prayer. However, this objection utterly ignores the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment, as well as the purpose of the Bill of Rights. Supposing that 99.9% of a school is made up of Christian students supporting mandatory prayer, the 0.1% does not have to bite the bullet. The Bill of Rights was drawn up to protect and ensure the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. Part of protecting the minority means that government must stay out of certain affairs, so that the ruling majority may not subvert the freedom of smaller groups. Whether a school is 99.9% Christian or 100% Christian, the law prevents any school from enacting administration-led prayer.
Prayer was allowed in schools for centuries before, and because we were created as a Christian nation, everyone ought to be able to pray in schools.
The first universities built in America were seminaries, and prayer was obviously permitted. Several of the original thirteen colonies even established their own official religion. Yet from the early years, there was also a push to secularize government and education, led by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others, exemplified in the “Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty”. Prayer in schools was not often an issue in those times, however, because most schools were private and religious institutions. It wasn’t until 1837 that Horace Mann began working towards the creation of a public education system in the United States. One of the six principles Mann emphasized for public education in The Common School Journal was that education should be non-sectarian.
In short, the introduction of the public school system brought with it the need to secularize education, so as to suit every unique individual of various beliefs. Those who wish for a more sectarian education can still take advantage of private schools across the country, as well as the option to homeschool. As for the myth of America’s Christian heritage, I have covered it in a separate article: Is America a Christian Nation?.
What if the prayer delivered is non-sectarian? Is it ok as long as it doesn’t reinforce any single religion?
The problem with this objection is that prayer itself is a sectarian practice. It may not seem so to believers, but there are many religious people who do not pray or believe in prayer. Deists recognize an impersonal god that abstains from human affairs, meaning that prayer is not part of the Deistic ‘creed’. Animism is another religion that does not practice prayer, and there are many Buddhists who do not pray (although some consider meditation a form of prayer). But all this aside, non-sectarian practices are still unacceptable, for the simple fact that favoring religion over non-religion is a violation of the Establishment Clause. There are lots of Americans who identify themselves as non-religious, and the First Amendment clearly forbids “respecting an establishment of religion”. If it forbade ‘respecting a religion’, or ‘respecting an establishment of a religion’, then an argument for non-sectarian prayer might work, but as it reads, the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion over non-religion, as well as the religion of any specific sect over that of another.
The founding fathers well understood that freedom of religion necessarily implies freedom from religion. One person’s freedom to accept Christianity means their freedom to reject Islam, as one person’s freedom to accept Islam means their freedom to reject Christianity. It is only reasonable, therefore, to allow freedom from all religion too. With the Establishment Clause, the framers of the First Amendment instituted freedom from religion, and the Free Exercise Clause that follows it is the beneficial product: freedom to practice our numerous beliefs in whatever way we see fit.
1. Bergel, G. (1988) Banning Prayer in Public Schools Has Led to America’s Demise. The Forerunner. Retrieved Apr. 30, 2010.
2. U.S. Supreme Court. ENGEL v. VITALE, 370 U.S. 421 (1962). Findlaw.com. Retrieved Apr. 30, 2010.
3. U.S. Supreme Court. SANTA FE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT v. DOE (2000). Findlaw.com. Retrieved Apr. 30, 2010.