A Back-to-School Fight over the Right to Classroom Prayer

Is barring public schools from imposing prayer on students a constitutional imperative or an attack on faith?

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The start of a new school year always brings change. For students, it’s new classmates, new teachers and new lessons. For culture warriors, it’s a new front in the long-running battle over school prayer and religious proselytizing. On one side, civil libertarians charge that schools imposing mandatory prayer on students are in violation of the Constitution. On the other, religious groups argue that it is faith that is being discriminated against — and in several states, religious groups have been notching some big victories.

In Missouri, voters this month overwhelmingly passed Amendment 2, a so-called right-to-pray amendment, which, among other things, asserts “that school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools.” Critics are more worried about a clause that also protects the right of students to opt out of academic assignments that violate their religious beliefs. While it’s easy to see the appeal of the amendment — no parent would want schools to teach their children values with which they disagree — the law is worded so broadly that it could interfere with schools’ ability to teach evolution, critics say, or even women’s rights or the value of tolerance for other religions.

In April, Tennessee enacted a law — dubbed the monkey bill — that protects the right of teachers to teach creationism rather than evolution. Louisiana had already adopted a similar law, and other states are weighing doing the same.

(MORE: Cohen: Are We Sliding Backward in Teaching Evolution?)

Meanwhile, the civil libertarians are waging their own battle. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Engel v. Vitale, a broad, landmark Supreme Court ruling that found that the First Amendment bars public schools from imposing prayer on students. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been calling out perceived backsliding among school districts hoping to find ways around Engel v. Vitale for years, and right now it’s focusing on South Carolina.

Last week the ACLU launched a campaign called “Religious Freedom Goes to School,” aimed at bringing the state’s schools into compliance with the First Amendment. “We are challenging all of South Carolina’s public schools to do more to protect religious freedom,” the group says on its website, “because all students, regardless of faith or belief system, should feel safe and welcome in our public schools.”

(MORE: Cohen: Ew, Boys: The Brewing Legal Battle over Same-Sex Education)

The ACLU says it has received complaints from across South Carolina of teachers leading prayers in class, Bibles being distributed in schools and coaches holding prayer sessions at football practice. The group sued one South Carolina school district last year on behalf of a student and his father, who claimed they were ostracized after objecting to religious activities at the child’s middle school. These included being required to attend “worship rallies” (featuring a performance by B-SHOC, a Christian rapper who sings songs like “Crazy ‘Bout God”) and to sign pledges dedicating their lives to Jesus. The school district signed a consent decree agreeing not to engage in improper religious activity in the future.

In Georgia, a group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation has charged that a high school football coach has been holding pregame meals in a local church, where the students are preached to by a Christian minister; leading pregame and postgame prayers; and pressuring students to attend a Christian football camp.

(MORE: Andrew J. Rotherham: Tim Tebow Debate: Should Homeschoolers Be Allowed on Public-School Sports Teams?)

These battles are hardly surprising. The nation is deeply divided on social issues of all kinds, including the role of religion in public life. But despite the current skirmishes, the real story is how far the nation has come in establishing a wall of separation between religion and public schools.

In Engel v. Vitale, the 1962 Supreme Court case, a group of public-school parents challenged a New York school district’s requirement that every class begin the day with an official prayer thanking “Almighty God.” It is a sign of how far the debate has shifted that today this sort of officially mandated daily prayer in public school classrooms would feel like a relic from another century.

MORE: Jon Meacham: There Is No ‘War on Religion’

96 comments
drabbit
drabbit

School prayer is not an expression of freedom of religion, it is the establishment of religion.  How proponents of school prayer and other religious practices and beliefs in the public schools can call using the power of the state to inflict their religion on others "religious freedom" and not be laughed out of the room is a sad commentary on the decline of wit and wisdom in our country.

Kimberly Wiltshire
Kimberly Wiltshire

Pray at home if you want to pray. Why do it in the classroom? i mena come on you have the whole rest of the day to pray.  Unless you let everyone pray in accordance to their own or those who don't be allwoed out of the classroom then NO! Stop pushing your beliefs and opinions on everyone else. Why not fight for childrens right for PE, or art classes or any other academic endeavor that there is no money for. 

SmallSpeakHouse
SmallSpeakHouse

I do not understand why the US far right has a problem with evolution being taught in schools. I'm not from the US. Raised Catholic, and have studied in a Protestant school, transferred to a Buddhist school, and graduated from a Catholic university. Evolution was taught by all three schools in science classes. Anything related to religion was taught in religion classes. That was never considered a problem because in the end, it's really up to you what you want to believe. In my case, I think it's helped me make an informed decision about my beliefs.

Rolf Steiner
Rolf Steiner

Let the teachers teach facts and science and not myths and fairy tales based on  stories that are so fabricated that children can see right through them until they are forced to goosestep to their brand of voodoo based on what their brainwashed parents tell them. 

Rolf Steiner
Rolf Steiner

Don't forget the following verses: 

Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:15 )

A priest's daughter who loses her honor by committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to death. (Leviticus 21:9 )

Make ready to slaughter his sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants. (Isaiah 14:21 )

Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the LORD your God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged from Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:12 ).

Those ought to put the fear of GAWD! into them.

iansamry
iansamry

This whole prayer debate is ridiculous. I went to a public high school and every morning after the pledge (which we were not required to recite) there was a minute of silence when we could pray silently, it was a fair system and no one's beliefs were ever trampled on.

Jon Gibson
Jon Gibson

Except that the worship of the flag was put before, and ahead of, the worship of 'God'...

Kimberly Wiltshire
Kimberly Wiltshire like.author.displayName 1 Like

Really the whole pledge of allegiance is rather odd, it is very reminiscent of Hitler's practices. 

dougt
dougt

The second some students start praying outloud to "Satan" or the "Great Spaghetti Monster", these states will change their tunes.   Careful what you ask for, you just may get it.

SuznAZ
SuznAZ

Being other than christian meant starting every school day feeling uncomfortable and different when school prayer was mandatory. Some teachers made it worse than others, depending on their personal beliefs. What a relief when it was ruled unconstitutional. Everyone is aware that no one needs permission to pray, one can do so whenever and wherever one chooses, silently, quietly between one and one's diety. What is not allowed and what some would return to is to group prayer in class room situations which imposes some teacher's version of christian prayer on everyone which is unacceptable under our Constitution. lleelee11: sorry that you "fear the Lord" and glad you can't impose that sad belief on other's children. You prove why organized school prayer is bad. Creationism is religion not science, no matter how you twist it.

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

There should be as much prayer in public schools as there is in the US Constitution - NONE!

Progress! Bob Johnson

www.deism.com

leelee11
leelee11

As an added benefit; being to able to pray in the schoolroom would be another tool teachers could use for classroom management.  Perhaps I could read the kids some Biblical stories too, the ones which teach us to fear the Lord and help us all behave.

leelee11
leelee11

Well anyway........my children could study creationism and appreciate it for its historical place and sociological value and they also have no problem being able to understand the concept of evolution and apply it to modern problems - We can live in America and still "think for ourselves". The problem comes when Americans don't take the time to examine the historial context of where ideas (like creationism) come from and why those ideas are important to society and our economy. Humans are resource driven, and hence the conflit: some industries would benefit by having workers believe in creationsim and some would benefit by having workers schooled in evolution and able to think analytically and scientifically.

drabbit
drabbit

@leelee11 Like Huxley's Brave New World. 

leelee11
leelee11

Well anyway........my children would study creationism and appreciate it for its historical place and sociological value and they would be able to understand the concept of evolution and apply it to modern problems - I don't see any problem. the problem comes when we don't take the time to examine the historial context of where ideas (like creationism) come from and why those ideas are important to society and our economy.  It is resource driven, and hence the conflit: some industries would benefit by having workers believe in creationsim and some would benefit by having workers schooled in evolution and able to think scientifically. 

Bob Videto
Bob Videto

The superstitious morons trying (somewhat successfully, unfortunately) to force fundamental christianity on those with REASON, will land us all back in the dark ages. The freedoms established in the United States of America are slowly eroding to the point that we will eventually become a fanatic theocracy as dangerous as the Taliban.

drabbit
drabbit

@Bob Videto Islamic, Jewish, and Christian fundamentalists.  Same game, different teams.

JeanClellandMorin
JeanClellandMorin like.author.displayName 1 Like

Here in France, nobody cares about all the crucifixes and statues of saints - it's part of the patrimoine. But religion does not invade the public schools. The U.S. doesn't need religious ideology polluting the schools. Religious fundamentalism , be it Christian, Muslim or any, is a cancer on the planet. // Jean Clelland-Morin

afmajret
afmajret like.author.displayName 1 Like

 religious fundamentalism is an oxymoron. Those believers who adhere to the fundamental tenets of almost any of the world's major religious doctrines don't ferment hate and intolerance. That comes from bigots and miscreants hiding behind warped misrepresentations of the faiths they purport to profess. Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst, to quote C.S. Lewis. We see it every day.

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

Certainly, the French have a much longer and bloodier history involving religious conflict and intolerance that we here in the U.S.  However, in my opinion, the bill signed into law by Jacques Chirac in 2004 banning students from exhibiting any religious symbols goes beyond separation of church and state and is a restriction of freedom.

It is also obviously aimed at one specific religious group - Muslims.  I also despise religious fundamentalism, but it is not for me to impose my beliefs concerning faith on others.

JeanClellandMorin
JeanClellandMorin

We have churches and the privacy of our homes for religious activities. And I agree, the fear of Muslim fundamentalism is part of the reason for the laïcité here in France.  I am an American citizen, ex-Mormon and graduate of Brigham Young University. // Jean Clelland-Morin

robert1001
robert1001

Get your religion out of my face, out of my government and out of my wallet. 

drabbit
drabbit

@robert1001  

And how much taxes do we have to pay to make up for the "charitable" tax deductions that are tithes to the church for the building fund, proselytizing, and other church activities that have nothing to do with helping the needy.

Belisarius85
Belisarius85

Strange...flip some of the words around and that would sound like the complaints of many religious people!

drabbit
drabbit

@Belisarius85  

No, the many religious people complain because they can't inflict their beliefs on the rest of us.  It's not the same.  I don't care if you believe as I do, and I am not calling for the state to force you to recite my beliefs.

IronBaby11
IronBaby11 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Prayer promotes confirmation bias, unreason, and tyranny -- elements that will make the world a saner and safer place. 

DarthWhatever
DarthWhatever like.author.displayName 1 Like

I honestly don't understand why this is an issue.  Prayer is allowed in public schools, just not at the disruption of class and not by the direction of the school- it's left up to the students.  What students choose to do on their own time (before class starts, between classes, during lunch etc) is up to them so long as it isn't illegal, immoral, or disruptive to other students.  If a student chooses to use that time to pray then nobody is going to stop them so long as it's not disrupting other students or interfering with their schoolwork.  If people are upset that their kids aren't praying enough in school then they need to address that issue with their children, not the school.

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

Why does the religious right want secular teachers and institutions teaching kids about god and faith?  Are our churches and synagogues not doing a good job, so they need government to step in and take over for them? Do they not realize that separation of church and state protects the church as much as it does the state?  Do they really want the government involved in religion?

Besides, state sanctioned prayer in school, even if it were allowed under the Constitution, would have as much impact on generating religious belief as saying the pledge every morning has had on fostering patriotism.

Good and Godless
Good and Godless

Belief is WAY different than knowledge.There is no god.You may "believe" the Jets will win the next Superbowl. That is high in the category. But you still are not making $1,000 deposit on reservations because there is a shadow of doubt.If someone believed the Knicks would win the next Superbowl - they are laughably in error as the Knicks are a basketball team. As a compassionate person you would hold their credit cards to prevent a deposit being made.To believe in god and creation is so sadly mistaken to the extreme below believing the Knicks winning a Superbowl because god does not even exist.There is a complete lack of shadows of doubt.

Belisarius85
Belisarius85

However, you cannot prove there is no God. It is statistically very, very, very unlikely that God exists, but there is still that small chance. And that is enough for people with an inclination towards belief to latch on to.

Honestly, you're not going to convince any believers through this line of attack, and perhaps it would be better if you didn't. A significant portion of the population NEEDS religion to keep from falling into depression or nihilism. That's probably the main reason an atheist culture has ever existed.

Best Regards.

artdeco54
artdeco54

As a former Catholic school teacher and a current public school teacher I will be happy to lead my children in prayer.....we can start with a Hail Mary, a prayer to Buddah, a prayer to the Great Spirit, a prayer from each of the world's great religions. It would be educational and breed religious tolerance and understanding. I have a feeling the prayer advocates would strongly object. As for teaching creationism, let's include everyone's creation stories, that's only fair.

drabbit
drabbit

@artdeco54  

I've always thought that if you were going to teach creationism you should include all creation stories including Hindu, American Indian, and all the other religions.  Of course, that's not what they are after.

Christian fundamentalists were excited when it was shown that prayer actually helps the recovery of the seriously ill.   Their enthusiasm declined rapidly when it was shown that this effect worked equally well for all religions. 

Fundamentalist belief depends on being the one and only truth.  All others are heretical.

JeanClellandMorin
JeanClellandMorin

And if you don't believe in any of the gods? // Jean Clelland-Morin

artdeco54
artdeco54

 You missed the point, the point is that those who advocate school prayer only want "their" kind of prayer to "their" God, not prayer in general. That is why prayer does not belong in public school. As for creationism, contrary to what many believe, it is not taught as science in Catholic schools. We teach evolution in science and Genesis in religion class. There is no problem reconciling the two. As a teacher I could never teach creationism as science.

JeanClellandMorin
JeanClellandMorin

Just wondering what my prayer might be. Didn't miss the point. // Jean Clelland-Morin

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

Yes, but let's extend this "fairness" to all subjects and disciplines.  

Let's not restrict the teaching of physics to just the ideas of Newton, et al, but also teach the belief in magic and the supernatural...just to be fair.  

And when we teach about the holocaust in history classes it is only fair to teach the view that the attempt to wipe out an entire people is just a Jewish conspiracy. Let's also include the point of view of white supremacists when teaching about the civil rights era. 

When we teach literature lets not just limit student exposure to classic works by authors such as Shakespeare and Twain, but also include the erotic novel Shades of Grey, as well as the collected works of Jacqueline Suzanne.  

For P.E. and health classes we should also include the views of coach potatoes and heroine addicts when teaching kids about exercise, nutrition, and their bodies.  

You know, to be fair.

For me the most reassuring part of your post was the word "former" in front of teacher.

SmallSpeakHouse
SmallSpeakHouse

You're taking his/her post too literally. I think the point was that you can't respect one belief without disrespecting another. Pushing for mandatory prayer in schools will only cause this, and as such will only cause trouble.

Barry Siegel
Barry Siegel

can we compromise and have a student-lead moment of silence ?

afmajret
afmajret like.author.displayName 1 Like

 No ...-led anything, thank you. For the Christians in this conversation, I would remind you of Matthew 6:6. For the non-Christians, this scripture, in Jesus' words, says when you pray, do so in private.

drabbit
drabbit

@afmajret  

So many Christians have strayed so far from the teachings of their savior.  The more fervent the further they have wandered.  Curiously it is getting harder to distinguish between political and religious beliefs.  That might be seen as moral consistency except the religious seems to follow the political, rather than the other way round.

Mark Holland
Mark Holland

To Omnicrom  ("You can have your magical atom, we'll have our magical grandpa, and we shall both be able to express our faith in public - schools included. If you want to pray to the ghost of Darwin, go right ahead. Just don't try to stop us from doing the same.")

  Actually I have no problem with the concept of Creation, while science trumps the false and invalidated monotheist beliefs, I do not have a problem with God or Gods unknown creating life as we know it through evolution.  I doubt very much that anything existed prior to the Big Bang, but I could see that the energies released during the Big Bag could have also created life forms that could be referred to as Gods.

  And no religious beliefs or concepts should be taught in the public school system.  Except as a course on world religious studies.  Where all religious beliefs are given equal time.  No religious belief has any proofs or evidence that it is more valid then any other belief.

  Christianity nor any of the other monotheist beliefs have anymore evidence to support them then a belief in the Spaghetti God of Mars has to support it.

Belisarius85
Belisarius85

Religions might all be blatantly unverifiable, but you ignore the important cultural cohesion benefits that a (single) religion provides. 

We should control and limit the impact of religion since we now have the technology to destroy ourselves, but pretending that it offers no practical advantages is foolish.

drabbit
drabbit

@Belisarius85  

Yes, it provided moral justification for slavery.  It also provided justification for wars.  In some wars the same religion provided the moral high ground for both sides.

Religion  may occasionally be a good moral  compass, but give me a secular humanist any day.