Windows and Doors

Windows and Doors


Prayer in Public Schools — The Democratic Way To Go?

posted by Brad Hirschfield

Amidst the growing excitement these days about democracy breaking out all over the world, one might be tempted to call for greater respect for “the will of the people” right here at home. New polling by Rasmussen indicates that 65% of Americans favor prayer in our nation’s public schools. So why not give the people what they want?
The argument that whatever the majority wants, it should get, is a dangerous and misguided understanding of democracy — one which quickly leads to an ugly state of affairs in which the rights and dignity of minorities is readily ignored. Tocqueville called this phenomenon “tyranny of the majority”, but whatever it is called, it is a real problem when we fail to recall that terms like “will of the people” refer to both a collective people and also to all of the individuals who make up that collective.
While public policy cannot always reflect the desires of the latter, it must at least respect and protect them. Those advocating for the reintroduction of prayer in our public schools need to pause and reflect on how that would be accomplished if prayer were indeed to make such a return. That same poll by Rasmussen holds additional information which suggests one way that might be done.


I am not suggesting that now is the time to bring back prayer to our classrooms, but as one who prays, as one who sees that this issue isn’t going away, and as one living in a time when the reintegration of faith and public institutions is on everyone’s minds, I am suggesting that we might begin to think about this question in new ways.
Perhaps we should consider thinking about prayer without God, or at least without religion. Apparently that is what millions of us are already doing anyway. Rasmussen’s polling indicates that while 65% of Americans want prayer in public schools – higher than last year, a decreasing number of us see religion as playing an important roll in our lives.
In other words, we seem to value prayer more than religion, and that may be a really good thing. In fact, it may be that this seeming preference for prayer over religion indicates a kind of common sense or popular wisdom from which the policy makers and religious leaders who debate the place of prayer in our public schools, could learn a thing or two.
What would it mean to embrace the importance of expressing gratitude and hope, the substance of most prayers in virtually all traditions, without resorting to any specific tradition or prescribed form of expression? What might happen if students were given a moment of silence every day for such reflection? What if we were really daring and called such moments, moments which are already observed in classrooms for all kinds of events, moments of prayer?
A large percentage of Americans seem to have already figured this one out – embracing prayer with increasing enthusiasm while diminishing the role of particular religions. That may well be a threatening trend for some practitioners, but it might also be a way of thinking about an endlessly divisive issue in a way that respects the will of the majority while also respecting and protecting the equally valid and important will of the minority.



  • nnmns

    Ah, but there are all those preachers who claim to need to mention “Jesus”.
    I, for one, think it’s not a bad idea for a moment of silence when people can reflect as they see fit.

  • romanscapegoat

    god is everywhere and everything…you can never shut god out of anything…politicians use the need of god in schools for votes, for profit…tax free business men who call themselves, men of the cloth,the chosen ones, picked to explain god,use the need of god in schools… for profit…most ignorant Americans do not understand, America is owned by the 2% wealthy and powerful, that Obama was trying to protect the 98% percent of not rich Americans, from…the 98% of unprotected Americans are just tenants, renting a room from the 2% wealthy landlords…tenants that can be kicked out on the streets at any unregulated time…the only promise of hope the 2% of not rich Americans have is, TV and movies…that give Americans a false programmed and controlled reality…LOOK UP ON YOUR COMPUTER WHO THE 2% OF WEALTHY AND POWERFUL ARE… WHO OWNS HOLLYWOOD… WHO OWNS THE MEDIA AND EVERY POLL IN AMERICA…WHO CONTROLS EVERYTHING YOU SEE AT THE MOVIES AND ON TV…WHO OWNES THE BANKS…WHO ARE THE CEO OF AMERICA…WHO CONTROLS WALLSTREET….JEWS

  • Eric Sedlack

    I think Prayer in public school is a good idea. Does religion freedom mean the banning of religion?

  • nnmns

    It means the banning of religion being forced on children. Imagine how you’d feel if, e.g. your child were given the options of kneeling to Allah or being the only one not doing it.

  • Mike

    Eric,
    The current understanding of the First Amendment, that school-sponsored prayer in the public schools is unconstitutional, does not “ban religion.” Kids are free to practice whatever religion they want. They can get together with like-minded friends and pray to their heart’s content. Naturally, it has absolutely nothing to do with what religious practices kids keep on their own time.
    What can’t happen is that, for instance, a Christian teacher in a public school cannot lead the class in The Lord’s Prayer. Why not? Imagine that you’re a Jewish kid and praying to Jesus violates your religious beliefs. All the other kids are joining in and the pressure is on you to just suck it up and say the prayer. Maybe the teacher pressures you or threatens you with punishment if you don’t join in.
    All of this detracts from the real purpose of school, which is to learn. You want your children to go to a school where they go to chapel and pray in class and learn about your religion’s teachings? There are private schools you can send your children to which will immerse them in religion.
    The public schools are for everyone, and are not supposed to be a platform for one religious group to throw its weight around.

  • romanscapegoat

    the Jewish owned banks are deliberately keeping the economy down to insure Obama never gets reelected…Obama wants to regulate the Jewish owned banks and corporations…NOW… the republicans in office{who are controlled by the banks and corporations} are using the excuse that the economy is bad so unions must end…Obama was stopped from regulating the Jewish owned banks and corporations… now unions are the only protection the 98% of not rich Americans have from the 2% wealthy…
    in “christian” America people are left on their own to protect them selves from greed…in “christian” America the media is controlled by the wealthy and will program Americans to believe unions are a bad idea… that Obama is a bad idea…in “christian” America only the ignorant are being programmed….TURN OFF YOUR TV…TURN OFF YOUR TV…TURN OFF YOUR TV…lets us pray…dear lord, America will always kill for corporate profit and America will always use your name to rally for war…help us to protect the freedom to allow the banks and corporations rape Americans…because freedom isn’t free…but having a church organization is free…tax free…and profit is all that really matters in “christian” America…

  • Marta

    It seems to me that people pray for at least three reasons. The first two come closest to being legitimately prayerful in my mind: an acknowledgment that there is something larger than ourselves, and the asking of a sort of cosmic favor, a plea for intercession. As a philosopher I have major doubts about intercessory prayer, especially intercessory prayer where you are praying for victory over someone else. Can I really convince God to act when he wouldn’t have otherwise? The Bible has examples that could be interpreted in that way (Abraham asking God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah in Gn 18-19 springs to mind), but I suspect that there are other ways of interpreting that. Still, even if intercessory prayer is out, I still think it’s good for us to pray. For psychological reasons if nothing else.
    (Actually, I wouldn’t mind a future post on intercessory prayer in Judaism. I think it would be interesting.)
    There’s a third reason why people pray, though, and that’s what worries me here. My religion warns against being like the people who “love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men” (Mt 6:5). I think a lot of people do pray to be seen, and this is probably more so in K-12 schools than it is in society as large because that world is so driven by peer pressure. I know that when I was growing up in a small town in the Bible belt, seeming like a good Christian was one way to build yourselves up. The problem is that this isn’t a mode of expression everyone has equal access to, because not all religions are equal. It’s not fair to the kids whose families belong to a minority religion – let alone the atheists – if prayer is incorporated into school.
    Personally, I wouldn’t mind space where kids could pray privately – like the meditation spaces offered in universities by campus ministries. But I do think social prayer is a bad move in this context, whatever the majothinks it wants.

  • Joel

    I believe in G-D. I pray. But I think prayer in public schools is fundamentally a bad thing.
    Any prayer led by a teacher is going to be watered down to childishness, and the effect of having school prayers is to teach children that prayer is something you do at school, not something of any real importance in your adult life.
    And prayers before football games and the like, where do I start? Here’s where I’ll finish. Prayers to win a game or pass a test become magical thinking, using the Almighty like a free, invisible, eternal appliance, when you need something you think you might not get. How much better to take responsibility for your own outcomes and regard G-D with awe.

  • http://ThusSayethMe.com Dr. Paul K. Fauteck

    Rabbi, I really enjoy reading your thoughts and the rational comments by other readers. Views by those who follow other religions are often especially helpful, throwing light on a topic from a different angle.
    The rantings of a few regular “thread hijackers” are a different matter. A prime example is romanscapegoat, who always uses this space to spout his antisemitic garbage, regardless of the topic others are trying to discuss. Just as you would surely block anyone who regularly resorted to obscenities, and many blogs consider thread hijacking or spamming equally objectionable, won’t you please arrange to block these people as well, so the rest of us can enjoy reading and discussing your opinions? Thank you.

  • romanscapegoat

    those who falsely pretend to be a doctor will falsely pretend everything in life…this is how a liar is born…thus sayeth the lord…

  • Ruth

    Prayer in school does not belong in anyway. Religion is a private thing. It will cause problems among a lot of faiths.

  • Harriet B

    I oppose prayer is public schools. I oppose Bible reading in public schools. I oppose religious Christmas carols in public schools.
    If there were prayter in public schools, who would lead it? What prayers would they be?
    Perhaps a reasonable compromise would be a moment of silence.

  • Brendan Pieters

    I’m sort of on the fence about the issue of prayer in schools. On the one hand, I can see prayer in schools hijacked by fundamentalists who will simply inflict Jesus on everyone, thereby making Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, children etc. feel less than their Christian classmates.
    On the other hand, we might be ready in our society to find a prayer to a God most of us believe in that will be both a real prayer and not be a painful affront to some listeners.
    Rabbi Brad, as always I read your thoughts on today’s issues with appreciation.

  • romanscapegoat

    prayer in schools…another example of useless drama for the ignorant to debate… while the Jewish owned republican agenda once again takes power away from the people… by ending, stopping, crushing unions…Obama was stopped from protecting the 98% of not rich from the 2% wealthy…UNIONS ARE NOW THE ONLY PROTECTION AMERICANS HAVE FROM THE WEALTHY…WHY ARE AMERICANS SO IGNORANT… ITS BECAUSE THEY ARE BEING PROGRAMMED BY THE JEWISH OWNED MEDIA….AND HOLLYWOOD…EVERYTHING ON TV IS CONTROLED BY THE JEWS…there are only six major banks that control America, these banks are all owned by the Jews…the economy is deliberately being kept down by the banks and corporations to insure Obama never get reelected…JUST AS THE WEALTHY KEEP THE COURTS TIED UP IN LIDAGATION UNTIL LAW SUITS ARE DROPPED…THE WEALTHY ARE DELIBERTLY KEEPING ECONEMY DOWN TO SHOW AMERICANS TO NEVER ELECET ANYONE LIKE OBAMA AGAIN…GOD BLESS AMERICA???GOD WILL PUNISH AMERICA!!!

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/windowsanddoors/2011/02/prayer-in-public-schools----th_comments.html Gavriella

    I believe in G-D. I pray. But I think prayer in public schools is fundamentally a bad thing.
    As someone who experienced the bad thing first-hand,I strongly oppose prayer in public schools. As a third-grader I was held up as a “spawn of satan” for refusing to cross myself and pray in Jesus’ name. Every day I was made to stand in front of the class while I was verbally and emotionally abused by the teacher, who also encouraged the other kids to abuse my body to save my soul. The other Jewish kids in the class were afraid to buck the teacher, so they prayed out loud, but they refused to hit me or call me names. They at least kept silent while the others shouted at me and told me I was going to burn in hell forever.
    When my mother complained to the principal, she was given no support or sympathy. This took place in a New York City public school.

  • Nancy

    Gavriella- What a terrible experience you had as a child. I am a Christian, but I abhor anyone who tries to strong arm people into believing something against his/her will. People who behave like that are not true Christians. Good for you that you stood up for yourself, had I been there I would have refused with you.
    That teacher should have been fired. To abuse a third grader is reprehensible. I hope she got what was coming to her. It is because of people like that , that prayer will probably never be introduced to public schools again. What these kids today really need is to be taught manners and respect, but no one seems to want to tackle that problem.

  • Dennis

    The famous John Templeton Foundation is an advocate for religion and spirituality. They wanted to scientifically demonstrate the efficacy of prayer. In a well-conducted experiment with appropriate control groups, they found no evidence of the efficacy of prayer. Prayer usually makes people “feel better” and not so helpless, but so do many other unproven religious beliefs. Public schools are there to transmit the concepts and skills that are essential for successful participation in the larger democratic society. Prayer is not one of them. Wisely,the United States was the first country not to be founded on a religion. Our founding fathers did not want this to be a Christian nation. Those who think they did should read what they actually said and wrote. The First Amendment of the Constitution protects religious diversity as well as freedom from religion. Is it not obvious that religion is hardly democratic? One does not argue with the deity! We should keep all religion out of public schools in a democratic society.

  • lonejew

    I oposse prayer in school. The Radical Christain teachers will pressure Jesus on none Christains and vice versa. And I agree that we shouldn’t pray just to be seen. If you arte monotheistic and your teacher is Wiccan and she must lead prayer would you want to be praying to zeus and juno. I would stick with a moment of silence.

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