There’s a lot of myths and misconceptions out there about how the law and religion intersect. Often, it seems to me, there’s a lot of screaming and shouting without any attempt to understand what the law actually says. I think one of the most important examples of this is the school prayer debate. I use the word “debate” hesitantly, because the fact is that the law is fairly clear in most cases on what is and what is not allowed as far as prayer and proselytizing in schools are concerned.
First, prayer is allowed in school. Let me repeat that. Prayer is allowed in school. If a student wants to pray over his or her meal during lunch, that’s allowed. Not only is it allowed, but any attempt to stop said child from praying would be in direct violation of that child’s freedom of speech and religious expression. Students can do whatever the hell they want as far as prayer goes. If they want to get a group of like-minded students and have prayer sessions every day between classes, all power to them. Nobody can, nor should stop them. This is why student can meet once a year for a big group prayer event called See You at the Flagpole. So long as students are organizing it, there is nothing the school can or should do to stop it.
However, students are not allowed to disrupt class time or any other event with prayer (or in any other way, for that matter). If in the middle of math class, a group of students all stood up and started praying, it’d be perfectly acceptable for teachers or administrators to put a stop to it. It would be no different than if a student were sent off for discipline for shouting obscenities during class. It’s the interruption of other students’ learning environment that’s at issue.
What the laws against school prayer were designed to stop was faculty led prayer. Teachers are not, under any circumstances, allowed to lead their students in prayer. Teachers are representatives of the school, and by proxy of the U.S. Government, and the Constitution and court precedent is very clear that the government is not allowed to favor one religion over another, or belief over non-belief. Any school official who leads students in prayer does so in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
This includes football coaches leading their teams in prayer, or schools inviting religious leaders to speak at school events, and that’s how it should be. Even the people who are trying to get prayer put back into schools would probably be aghast at the thought of a Muslim teacher making kids face Mecca and pray to Allah a few times a day. While that’s speculation, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable assertion. Just look at a couple years ago when Louisiana passed a school voucher program, only to be horrified to find out that it would support Muslim schools just as it would Christian ones.
Conservative lawmakers regularly try to write legislation to get around the Constitutional roadblocks to teacher-led school prayer. Recent attempted laws in Kansas and Alabama as well as other states are written specifically to allow prayers in school. These laws include language which would allow students who don’t wish to be a part of such prayers to leave the room, but that only further isolates students who don’t believe what the majority of their peers do.
There are even schools out there that are perfectly willing to ignore the law as it suits them. When the parents of a Buddhist student in Louisiana complained to the district about how their son was being preached to in class, the superintendent suggested the student move to another school that had “more asians.”
Public schools are an extension of the government, and the government shouldn’t be taking sides on religion. To paraphrase a quote I heard from David Silverman: Religious freedom means you get to believe what you want to believe, and I get to believe what I want to believe. The government represents us both, and shouldn’t take sides either way.
There are some grey areas, though. What about a valedictorian leading a prayer during graduation? What about a student leading a crowd in a prayer before the beginning of a sporting event? Issues like that are a bit more difficult to solve. On one hand, you have a student’s right to freely express themselves, but on the other you have the rights of other students to be a part of school activities without being forced to take part in religious acts. It’s a tough one to figure out, and smarter people than me have attempted to settle the issue.
A long time ago, I heard a story about a student who was giving her valedictorian speech during graduation, and when she mentioned Jesus, her mic was immediately cut. In the past, I’ve said that I wholeheartedly support that student’s right to say whatever she wanted. Since she was neither a representative of the district, or in any way in its employ, her remarks should in no way be considered as endorsed by the district. She worked hard to become valedictorian, and she had the right to say whatever she wanted.
I’ve since come back from that opinion, but only a little. I think that it’s important to know what she was actually saying. If she wanted to thank Jesus for her success, or give credit to god for where she was, that should be her right. But if she ever crossed the line to proselytizing she should’ve been stopped. Being valedictorian doesn’t give her the right to preach to a captive audience using the school’s time and resources. While she has the rights to her beliefs, the students listening to her speech have the right not to be preached at.
I can’t be sure what was in the content of her speech – and honestly, I don’t trust the source I linked to above for anything more than the most basic facts; it was a very biased article. But from what I can gather, the school tried to err on the side of caution by banning any religious content in the speech, and I don’t think that was the right course.
Having said that, there’s also the case of the Texas school that voted every year whether to allow students to use the intercom to pray before football games. The Supreme Court decided that doing so would unfairly force students to take part in prayer if they wanted to go to the game. The fact that the students voted on whether or not to do it had no bearing. A person’s freedom to not take part in prayer is a right, and can’t be voted away.
There are those who might see this as nothing more than an intellectual exercise. Understand that people who fight religious encroachment in their schools often do so at a heavy price, even with the law at their side. When Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island high school student (note that Rhode Island isn’t exactly in the bible belt), sued her school to get a mural to “Our Heavenly Father” removed, she was subjected to harassment and threats of violence, rape, and even death. She even needed a police escort to school for a time, and her own governor called her an “evil little thing.”
More recently, a student in North Carolina fought her school for the right to start a secular student group. When the school finally relented, the girl and her family faced so many threats that they decided not to start the club. School prayer may seem like an insignificant issue to most people, but for those fighting against religious intrusion in their schools, the cost is all too real.
Prayer in school, contrary to popular belief, is absolutely legal. School-led prayer, however, is not. It’s important for people to understand the simple, yet significant, difference. It’s no different than the rest of the country. You can pray all you want, but you can’t make anyone else who doesn’t choose to. It’s no different for schools, and if you think about about it, would you want it any other way?