Prayer in the Schools:
Should Americans be Allowed
Public Display of their
(Investigator 145, 2012
issue before the United States' courts — and still discussed in the
press, such as by former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich — is the subject
of religion and public schools. One example is the courts have
consistently ruled that it is "unconstitutional" for teachers or school
authorities to lead, or even encourage, any type of individual or
organized audible "prayer" in the public schools (Brookhiser,
1994). The most recent Supreme Court case, Lee vs. Weisman,
resulted in a 5-4 decision to uphold the prohibition of
employee-sponsored prayers in public schools.
because three of the five majority ruling justices were
"conservatives." The court based their decision on the claim that
hearing a verbal prayer could cause "social stress" in nonconforming
students (Boston, 1992). This decision, often regarded as a blanket
ruling outlawing certain speech content, is fraught with problems
What is outlawed
court decision is certain speech content, specifically religious speech
that is authorized or allowed by the school. The first concern is
defining prayer. Usually a prayer starts with "Dear God" and ends with
"Amen." What if these words were omitted, is the speech still prayer?
What about saying "if there is a God, please bless us," or just "please
bless this class," or even just "I hope the class does well." The
verbalization of "Lord, would you please help my class to do well on
their exams. Amen" would be illegal, but would "Lord, I am going to
help my class do well on their exams today" also be legal? That the
details of these rulings have yet to be worked out is illustrated by
the following incident.
2001 World Trade Center terrorist disaster, a group of elementary
students on an official school field trip were trapped at the top of
the building. To exit, they had to descend about 100 floors in a dark
smoke filled stairwell, and none of the students nor the teacher
possessed any knowledge about what dangers may be found as they worked
their way to the bottom, or even if they would survive the ordeal.
To help comfort
children, their teachers sang religious songs and prayed with them.
This act opened up a whole new area of litigation because, strictly
speaking, this behavior was a violation of court rulings, and similar
violations are enthusiastically pursued by the ACLU to insure that such
behavior does not occur in schools or during any official school
activities (Dierenfield, 1992). Nonetheless, the teacher was not
prosecuted because it was recognized that to deny the children some
comfort would be cruel.
to understand why both private schools and the home schooling movements
are rapidly growing in America. Incidents such as this will also
eventually force the courts to rethink the officially sanctioned
government hostility toward traditional religion in general, and theism
in particular. Many scholars in this area now realize that the official
non-theism, actually atheism, which predominates in the textbooks and
school curricula is hardly religious neutrality, an ideal which the
government repeatedly seems to trample on by going to extremes on one
side or the other (Johnson, 1992). In cases such as the above, will the
courts rule that prayer led by a teacher in an emergency or traumatic
situation is legal or illegal? The courts have not yet touched on
this question, but in
the past two
the courts have seriously impinged on traditional conceptions of the
role of religion in America. The Founding Fathers thought the First
Amendment's establishment clause meant that the state should be
friendly to all religions but play no favorites. Now the clause is
taken to mean that the state is neutral between belief and non-belief —
that is, it vigorously promotes secularity in all public functions
Now that most
schools and colleges have had their post supreme court Lee vs. Weisman
ruling graduation, the effect of the recent supreme court decision
outlawing school sponsored or condoned prayer at these events can begin
to be assessed (Boston, 1992). An evaluation of those individuals
initiating such bans, such as Madeline Murray O'Hare, reveals that the
original intent behind outlawing formal religious behavior in schools
is part of an attempt to reduce the influence of religion in the United
States by atheists. Their eventual goal is to minimize the impact of
the Judeo-Christian-Moslem belief structure in American society.
seems that government repression of religion often has had the opposite
effect, partly because something that is banned is often more
appealing. Many Americans believe prohibiting speech based on its
religious content is wrong and hypocritical because other kinds of
speech content, including obscene language and that advocating behavior
which most Americans find abhorrent, such as calling murdered men names
at their funerals has been repeatedly allowed by the courts.
Prohibiting this speech content has been consistently ruled
unconstitutional censorship. A Reader's Digest poll found 80%
of its respondents disapprove of the Supreme Court ruling that made
school approved prayer at a high school graduation unconstitutional,
and 75% favor the right to openly offer prayer in public schools
One aspect of
prayer that is often ignored is that it demands religion and the state
(and also now public life) be kept "separate," a goal contrary to most
religions' purpose of changing their members total behavior for the
better. There is no one so disliked as a Sunday Christian, a
person who puts on the coat of righteousness on Sunday, and then cheats
in business and on his wife on Monday. Religion is good only if it
makes people better. We are now in a stage in history where we
condemn both those who do not live their faith on Monday and those who
do. As Alfred North Whitehead once stated, many people tend to think
that religion, properly understood, is what a person does with their
The sin of
as well as Judaism and Islam, is far less because of what it has caused
people to do, and far more because people have not done what their
religion says they should do. Indeed, the ethic of "loving thy neighbor
as thyself" is a prominent part of all three of these belief
structures. And, challenging prayer, instead of stopping the expression
of a believer's worldview, may shame many of those who may not be
inclined to express their worldview into doing so.
forced students to take the initiative in this area. This has resulted
in many separate church sponsored Baccalaureate services, resulting in
imparting far more religious content than otherwise would have been the
case before the court ruling (Zirkel, 1990). The Supreme Court Engel
vs. Vitale decision determined that no state or local government can
allow prayer or scripture reading in schools, yet polls found that the
majority of respondents disagree with that decision, and 61% favored a
constitutional amendment allowing prayer in schools. Separation
of church and state was seen as important by 66% of the responses, but
a majority felt that prayer at public gatherings, such as at sports
events or sessions of Congress, should be allowed.
The court ruling
had the effect of motivating students to reevaluate what they believe,
and openly express their feelings where formerly apathy reigned. In my
local high school graduation, several honor students did an excellent
job articulating a position on politics and religion that they normally
would not have been anxious to advocate openly. Indeed, attempts to
suppress religion may do more to bring about a religious awakening than
all of the preachers in the world admonishing their flock to serve God
and live a moral life.
Issues such as
the military and prayer in school may have more in common than it first
appears. Both involve forcing a minority view on the majority.
Organized school employee directed school prayer is outlawed, it is
claimed, because the majority belief offends a minority who find such
behavior objectionable. No doubt, many who have experienced a person
reciting a prayer in public have felt uncomfortable. Likewise, forcing
the military to accept gays offends the majority who deem homosexual
behavior offensive. Prayers said at public functions are often carried
out in a perfunctory way, and not uncommonly has the effect of
trivializing both prayer and religion — somewhat like pornography
cheapens sex. I remember a principal who was openly involved in an
adulterous affair seemingly without guilt who once gave an emotional
prayer at a public school — and we thought "what a hypocrite."
in the Jehovah's Witnesses. We were forbidden under pain of
disfellowshipping — the total cutting off from all family members and
friends who are Jehovah's Witnesses (not even being allowed to speak to
such persons) — to partake in even quasi "religious" exercises in
school. The reason was that we were taught all religions, aside from
our own, are not only wrong, but evil and of Satan. We,
therefore, regarded all religions with contempt, believing that only we
had the key to salvation. We were also not to take part in the Pledge
of Allegiance, partly because it contained the phrase "under God" and
contains other quasi-religious elements. Jehovah's Witnesses and many
other groups for this reason oppose prayer or religious exercises in
the public schools.
My own experience
hearing the prayers of others in school had the effect that the
Watchtower Society feared — I came to learn that other's prayers were
much like my own, and in time I realized that the teaching that these
people were of Satan was a lie. Consequently, I was eventually forced
out of the Witnesses. Sociological research has confirmed that positive
exposure to another culture or religion breaks down prejudice; this was
a major rationale behind the forced integration of races. Getting to
know persons of other races and backgrounds forces a person to confront
the enormous commonality that he or she has with them, and often helps
to break down false stereotypes about other groups.
For this reason,
outlawing or discouraging prayer in school may result in building
barriers between people instead of tearing them down. What
society should be stressing is tolerance for all groups, or at least
understanding the rationale a group uses to justify its conclusions.
Agreeing with someone and developing tolerance for them are two
different things. Likewise, outlawing religious garb in the public
schools helps breed intolerance for those people and groups. As forced
integration can reduce prejudices, governmental encouragement of
positive exposures to different national, economic, religious, and
professional groups can likewise help to tear down the prejudices that
many groups harbor toward each other.
nationalism have, according to one estimate, resulted in the loss of
almost a billion lives since the turn of the last century.
Consequently, all societies should help their people develop tolerance
for other groups. Admittedly, forcing religion down other people's
throats is not a very effective way of convincing them of the validity
of one's beliefs. The heavy-handed method that many schools have used
in the past is also to be condemned. Conversely, passing laws
that forbids speech in the public forum solely on the basis of its
content is also abhorrent and likewise is to be condemned.
thinks religion is fine if conducted in private as a personal pursuit,
like woodworking or chess. But if religions bring their moral concerns
into the public arena, the elite is always ready to stamp its
collective feet and howl about dangerous zealots and a crumbling wall
between church and state. That culture basically thinks it's
illegitimate for religions to do what they are set up to do: act
communally and forcefully on moral issues (Leo, 1993:20).
A Yale law
concluded that American has transformed itself from one of the most
religiously free countries to one of the more religiously intolerant
(Carter, 1993). Now that the Eastern Block and the former Soviet Union
not only permit religious influence, but openly encourage it, the
situation in America has, indeed, become bitingly ironic.
Boston, Rob. "The
Still Stands." Church & State, July-Aug., 45(7):4-7, 1992.
Us Pray." Time, December 19, 1994:84.
Carter, Stephen. The
Culture of Disbelief. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
"Should the Children Pray? A Historical, Judicial, and Political
Examination of Public School Prayer." (Book reviews). Journal
of Church & State, Spring, 34(2):386-387, 1992.
on Trial. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991.
In Believers." U.S. News and World Report. Sept. 20,
1993, p. 20.
"Let Us Pray!" Reader's Digest, Nov., 1992, pp. 75-81.
"Making Room for Religion." Newsweek, Vol. 72(12), Sept. 20,
1993, pp. 56-57.
Zirkel, Perry A.
the Door to After-School Prayer (Forcing a Christian Club at Westside
High School in Omaha)." Phi Delta Kappan, Sept., 72(1):84-87,