In recent blogs, I’ve been concerned with clearing up some common misconceptions relating to areas of interface (sometimes involving significant controversy and conflict) between religion and secular American culture. Having previously discussed why teaching creationism in public school science classes, or posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, are both inappropriate and unconstitutional, I suppose it’s perhaps time now to take a look at the whole heated issue of the place of prayer in U.S. public schools.
There is a lot of heated rhetoric in the air these days regarding an alleged ban on prayer in the public schools. A number of conservative Christian leaders frequently complain about the tragic injustice of how kids aren’t allowed to pray in school anymore.
This is nonsense. Kids pray all the time in school (often right before a quiz or exam).
In fact, the Bill of Rights’ First Amendment protects both the right to freedom of speech (prayer can obviously be a form of speech) as well as the right to free exercise of religion (praying also obviously qualifies as exercising one’s religion). So, the right of kids to pray in school is not only not banned, but even constitutionally protected. And, in actual fact, no one is officially disallowing kids to pray in school whenever they want (so long as it isn’t disruptive, of course — a basic school rule that equally applies to other sorts of free speech and forms of self-expression).
However, please note that these constitutionally protected legal rights and freedoms apply only to people, and not to the government. Individuals may freely exercise their religion of choice, and give free expression to their own private religious preferences; however, the state cannot do likewise (because the U.S. Constitution also mandates that the state may not promote, endorse, or otherwise “establish” religion).
The state may not establish, endorse, promote, sponsor, or conduct prayers. U.S. public schools, being government-run and taxpayer-supported, are part of “the state.” Ergo, public schools (e.g., the state) may not lead or conduct prayers. (They can’t even offer to lead purely “voluntary” prayers with an “opt out” option for non-praying students; that’s still a form of religious participation and support, on an official basis, by the state — which is flatly unconstitutional).
Private individuals can pray whenever and wherever they want; no one’s personal freedoms are being abridged in this regard. But the state (including the public schools) cannot mandate, sponsor, conduct, or otherwise officially sanction prayer.
It really is that simple.
It is sometimes objected that teachers’ rights of religious expression and free speech are being violated, if they are forbidden to lead students in prayer. However, teachers on duty in public schools are not acting as private individuals, but as employees (and hence representatives) of the state. While acting in their capacity as employees of the state, public school teachers must comply by the constitutional rules that prevent the state from endorsing or promoting religion.
(That also means that public school teachers may not post the Ten Commandments in their classrooms, or teach creationism in science classes, since doing so amounts to just as much of an unconstitutional state endorsement or promotion of religion as does leading students in classroom prayers.)
So, schools are by no means “prayer free zones” — the shrill objections of ultra-conservative Christians committed to the unconstitutional re-introduction of state-sanctioned, teacher-led daily school prayer notwithstanding. Just because school officials may not lead students in prayers does not mean that students are unable to freely pray on their own, throughout the day, at school. Students can (and do).
In the wake of violent school-related tragedies, such as the recent massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut public elementary school, there is often a wave of heated rhetoric emanating from religious conservatives regarding how perhaps such school shootings might not have occurred if only we had not “kicked God out of our schools” by banning state-led school prayer. But such reasoning is deeply flawed and fallacious on multiple levels.
Firstly, we have not “kicked God out of our schools.” As private individuals, kids today remain as free to pray in their schools as they have ever been; in fact, their right to do so is constitutionally protected. It’s just that it has been widely recognized that it is clearly unconstitutional for the state (and, by extension, state schools) to officially sanction, sponsor, offer, or conduct prayers. That in itself clearly does not transform schools into “God-free zones”; banning schools from leading prayers, like banning schools from teaching religious doctrines such as creationism or posting religious rules such as the Ten Commandments, merely ensures that public schools remain religiously neutral environments, for students of every religion or no religion.
Secondly, banning school prayer can in no way be seen as somehow rejecting or abandoning the alleged divine protection that schools would otherwise enjoy, as such theological criticisms always seem to intend to imply. Officially implementing mandatory school prayers in no way offers a divine guarantee against school shootings from occurring. For proof of this, all one need do is to recall the 2006 shooting spree which occurred in an Amish school in Pennsylvania. Ten girls were shot; five of them died. And this tragedy occurred despite the fact that community-based Amish schools (which are not public schools) conduct morning Bible readings and daily prayers.