Myth: Thanks to separation of church and state, kids can’t pray in public schools.
Some Arizona lawmakers have made headlines claiming that we don’t need to keep guns out of schools; we need to bring more prayer in. Once again, a legislator has introduced a bill (HB2060) to mandate a quiet reflection and moral reasoning time as a way to stick the camel’s nose under the tent.
But as long as there are algebra tests, there will be prayer in school. What the U.S. Supreme Court banned in 1962 (Engel v. Vitale) and 1963 was government-sponsored, compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Voluntary prayer was never banned but, given the diversity of religions in the U.S. (1,500 to 2,000 estimated), it is a very good idea to prohibit government-sponsored or compulsory prayer.
Prior to those rulings, Jewish and Muslim kids were required to recite Christian prayers. Catholics were required to listen to verses from the King James version of the Bible that was written by the Anglican church that ridiculed the beliefs of the Catholics. The non-religious were required to accept it all. Parents rights regarding how and in what religion to bring up their children were ignored.
Legitimate Educational Goals v. Coercion and Retaliation
Today, young people can pray and read religious books in a non-disruptive way but no one can be compelled or singled out for refusing to do so. Kids can set up religious clubs in non-instructional time but they have to be open to all, student run, and voluntary. Religion can be discussed in classes like history, art, literature and others. The Bible and other religious texts can even be read as part of a comparative religion course. As long as the approach has legitimate educational goals, public school officials will not get into trouble for teaching about religion. This is truly the American way, not coercion and retaliation.
It’s the Bible, after all, that says in Matthew 6:5-6, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” Those advocating for public prayer in the school ought to pay attention to their own good books.
The hysteria about praying in schools is just that, hysteria, or perhaps worse. It is the shifting of blame from the state legislature’s refusal to regulate guns as the vast majority of Arizonans want to, claiming that the problem is prayer. It’s the shifting of blame from the state legislature’s depletion of funding for our schools, to blaming our schools’ poor scholastic record on lack of prayer. Those making these claims would not argue that the Koran should be read in class or the Torah or the Humanist Manifesto.
In “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law,” 35 religious and civil liberties organizations give the following summary of the rights of students to express their faith in a public school: Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive.
The Premise and Promise of Democratic Pluralism
Because the Establishment Clause does not apply to purely private speech, students enjoy the right to read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray before tests, and discuss religion with other (willing) student listeners.
In the classroom, students have the right to pray quietly, except when required to be actively engaged in school activities (e.g. students may not decide to pray just as a teacher calls on them).
In informal settings, such as the cafeteria or in the halls, students may pray either audibly or silently, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other speech in these locations.
However, the right to engage in voluntary prayer does not include, for example, the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate. (Student Religious Expression in Public Schools: United States Department of Education Guidelines)
So first, know the facts: prayer is not excluded, it just cannot be government-sponsored or compelled.
And second, the rules that apply to one, apply to all. The Williamsburg Charter that was signed in 1988 by Presidents Carter and Ford, two then-living Chief Justices, and 200 other leaders states in part:
We affirm that a right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for all. A right for a Protestant is a right for an Eastern Orthodox is a right for a Catholic is a right for a Jew is a right for a Humanist is a right for a Mormon is a right for a Muslim is a right for a Buddhist—and for the followers of any other faith within the wide bounds of the republic.
That rights are universal and responsibilities mutual is both the premise and the promise of democratic pluralism. The First Amendment, in this sense, is the epitome of public justice and serves as the golden rule for civic life.
Rights are best guarded and responsibilities best exercised when each person and group guards for all others those rights they wish guarded for themselves.