I recently got a spammy chain-letter-style Facebook message from a professing Christian with whom my only contact has ever been on social media. The message seemed to have been sent to his entire list of “friends”. Among other things, the message complained we have excluded God from our schools by banning prayer, and that events like school shootings and terrorist attacks are the result: God is a “gentleman,” said the message, so God will step out of the way, withholding his protection, if we ask God to.
The message was not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of position, and not the first time I’ve been bugged by it. There were too many troubling claims in the message to tackle all at once, so I thought, today, I’d address the question of prayer at school.
What, exactly, is the problem?
What position does my Facebook friend advocate, exactly? It can’t be that he laments the exclusion of private prayer at school, since the number of private prayers uttered on American campuses is almost certainly huge. My daughter’s private prayers before math tests are one example.
Furthermore, he can’t be lamenting the exclusion of prayer from private religious schools; after all, prayer is typically a regular part of the official “liturgy” of a school day at such institutions. For example, as an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University—a private Christian university—I often prayed with and for my students at the beginning of class.
He also can’t be lamenting the exclusion of prayer from religious groups and clubs on public school campuses, since this kind of prayer happens all the time. My oldest daughter was part of the Christian club at her public high school last year, she started a Christian club at her public performing arts school this year, and she has prayed at all of their meetings. Although I only know about Christian groups like this, my guess is that there are a range of Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups who do the same. This is not even to mention the myriad religious groups that meet and pray on college campuses—public and private alike.
No, it must be that my Facebook friend laments the exclusion of officially-sanctioned mandatory prayer in public schools. I take it that the model is supposed to be something like the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance: the teacher stands at the front and leads the class in some kind of required moment of prayer every day. According to my Facebook friend, exclusion of this sort of thing is responsible (at least in part) for school shootings and terrorist attacks in the U.S.: the importance of religion has diminished in the U.S., and we are reaping the consequences.
Why officially-sanctioned mandatory prayer in public school is a bad idea
Setting aside the troubling (and, in my view, unfounded) link with school shootings and terrorism, this kind of prayer in school is a really bad idea. Why? Because it imposes a particular religious practice on teachers and students who may not share the beliefs motivating the practice, and it thereby violates their religious freedoms.
Suppose someone is an atheist and a teacher at a public school (or even just a deist who doesn’t believe God responds to prayer). Requiring that person to stand up in front of the class and lead her students in prayer is clearly imposing on her a practice that, at best, she thinks is pointless and, at worst, violates her conscience.
For students, the situation may seem slightly less difficult; they could just remain silent while the teacher and other students pray around them (something like what I do whenever I’m in a situation where I’m expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance—another topic for another time).
But, even for such students the practice is problematic. The truth is, the student who refuses to pray in this situation is made to feel like her religious convictions don’t matter, which is deeply disrespectful. Also, we are social creatures who crave acceptance, so being a lone dissenter is an exhausting and troubling business. Being subject to this sort of social pressure every day could, in the end, cause someone to change his practices just to get along, thereby compromising his religious convictions.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the most notable legal effort to prevent situations like this (among others). The so-called “establishment clause” of that amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Although interpretation of the establishment clause is controversial and ongoing, it seems fairly uncontroversial that the basic point is to prevent government from imposing a particular religion—either practices or beliefs—on citizens, or even advocating for a particular religion. And requiring officially-sanctioned prayer in public schools violates this principle, since public schools are funded by our government, and their activities are thereby an official expression of the government.
Why would we want this sort of clause in our Constitution? Because many of the people who first settled in the New World were fleeing religious persecution in Europe. If their religious practice did not conform to the religion sanctioned by the government, they were made to feel like outsiders, or worse they were violently attacked. As a result, people in the religious minority sought other places to live, including the New World, where they could practice their religion without the heavy-handed interference of government. The establishment clause was an effort to preserve this religious freedom permanently.
But, of course, it is inherent to a principle like this that we leave space for religious belief and practice that is different from our own. It would be inconsistent and hypocritical if those seeking freedom from tyrants imposing religious uniformity turned around and imposed a kind of religious uniformity of their own. They would be the new tyrants. So, consistency and integrity requires that those seeking religious freedom allow others to believe and practice in the ways their consciences direct them. And that means, in part, not imposing practices like prayer on them when they go to public school.
It goes without saying that such a policy does not apply to voluntary sub-groups within public schools, like Christian clubs, or private religious schools that receive no funding from the government. In those cases, prayer in school is not an expression of the government, and students and teachers can opt out. If they participate, they do so because they have chosen to—presumably because they subscribe to, or at least find no problem with, the religious bent of the institution.
In contrast, there are many people for whom it would be a tremendous hardship to opt out of public school. Indeed, there are many for whom opting out of public school would mean going without a formal education. And, as a society, we have decided that allowing children to go without a formal education is not acceptable. Thus, there need to be schools where people of widely varying religious backgrounds can be educated without being put upon because of their religious convictions and practices.
Tyranny of the majority
My guess is that many Christians—comfortable as part of the religious majority, and forgetful of the good reasons for the establishment clause—complain about the exclusion of officially-sanctioned prayer in public schools because they think they shouldn’t need to accommodate folks in the religious minority. This seems to be the spirit behind claims like, “The United States is a Christian nation,” which often follow hard on the heels of the complaint about prayer in public schools.
But, even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that we could find a majority of Christians in the U.S. who could agree on a particular way of praying in public schools (which I’m not actually sure we could do), no Christian should want this, since it would amount to tyranny of the majority. The easiest way to see why this would be bad is to imagine you are in the religious minority, as those who fled Europe to the New World were.
Suppose you are a high school student with a deep religious commitment to Christianity. Now suppose that your parents get great jobs in Saudi Arabia, where Sunni Muslims are in the majority. You move to one of these countries with them, and you begin attending public school. But, you find that each day the class is required by the teacher to recite the Shahada (the Sunni Muslim confession that there is one God and Muhammad is his prophet). Given your Christian convictions, this feels very disrespectful and uncomfortable to you, and you end up not participating. But, your teacher and fellow students notice and begin to think less of you, and you find it very hard to make friends. You experience an unwelcome social pressure simply because of your religious convictions.
No Christian (no human!) would want to grapple with this situation every day. Why? Because we think religious convictions are so essential to who we are as human beings that no one should be pressured to add or drop them. But, if we think this, why would we ever want to turn around and put people with religious convictions different from ours into the same position by requiring them (or pressuring them) to pray in school? I hope we would not.
In the end, then, my dear Facebook friend, the exclusion of officially-sanctioned prayer from public schools is not an expression of how unimportant religion has become in the U.S. Rather, it is an expression of how incredibly important religious convictions are to us as human beings. They are so important that we should shudder both at the thought of having them imposed on us, and also at the thought of imposing them on others.