Prayer in School

There was a time in America, where although the constitution guarantees a separation of church and state, many of the government institutions still encouraged or at least included components which were based on religious practices. In the past, the children of American public schools would enter the classroom, stand at attention for the pledge, and then join in with the class in prayer. In the locker room, the football or basketball coach would lead his players in a prayer both to win and that no one was injured in the game. The majority of the population of American citizens was Christian and so they would logically pray to a Christian god or to the savior of that religion. Students who did not belong to the Christian religion could either choose to abstain from this activity, or they could pray along with the other students in order to participate. That was before legislation was passed which made prayer in school to be unlawful because of various criteria and constitutional protections. After a series of lawsuits, the government got involved in the issue of school prayer, eventually passing a constitutional amendment which banned prayer in school.

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During the 1970s and 1980s, there began a series of lawsuits against public schools and public school districts. Often these suits were initiated by members of the community who did not belong to the Christian religion. These families, and their political supporters, felt that their children were being forced to participate in religious practices outside of their system of beliefs. The reasoning was that this demand for participation in prayer was a violation of the constitutional sanction separating church and state. Even though prayer is officially banned in schools, there are still cases where public schools are promoting religion, particularly Christianity, and violating both the law and constitution itself (Eckholm). Because of situations like these violations, the idea of prayer in school is still a constant source of debate and rhetoric, even five decades after initial legislation was passed.

Following these suits, the United States government passed legislation banning prayer in public schools. In the court case of Engel v. Vitale in 1962, it was determined that forcing children to participate in prayer in a public school setting was unconstitutional. Employees of the government thus could neither force or even encourage students to pray in a public school setting. The following year, Abington Township School District v. Schempp declared that school-sponsored readings from the Bible were also unconstitutional. According to the United States Department of Education:

The relationship between religion and government in the United States is governed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which both prevents the government from establishing religion and protects privately initiated religious expression and activities from government interference and discrimination. The First Amendment thus establishes certain limits on the conduct of public school officials as it relates to religious activity, including prayer (Guidance).

This position would provide the basis for the ban on school prayer, but would also lead to challenges of the ban which some claim is a violation of their right to express their religious beliefs.

For more than a decade, school prayer has been illegal in American public schools. This seemed to be the end of the debate. However, in recent years there has been a surge in the amount of suits challenging the ban on prayer in school. For example, a football team in the American south brought about a challenge. According to news reports, the team captain wished to lead the team in prayer. Over the stadium loudspeakers, a student chaplain gave a Christian prayer. Since neither the coach nor any other public school employee was involved in the prayer, the team believed that they should be allowed to pray as an expression of their own religious beliefs and the issue went to court. The United States Supreme Court decided in that case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, that this violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and prevented the school from continuing the practice.

In addition to banning morning prayer and prayer in the locker room, the ban on school prayer has had other, far-reaching effects. One teacher in Florida was arrested for offering a mealtime prayer at an event for school employees (Duin). In another incident, the Santa Rosa County School District was sued by senior class president Mary Allen. She was barred from speaking at her class’s graduation because it was feared that Allen, a Christian, may say something religious (Duin). Among other things, schools are not allowed to host speakers or school events which promote any religious belief system (Guidance). This has included widespread banning of holiday celebrations in the public school system. Holidays such as Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day are not allowed to be celebrated in public schools because some groups feel the celebrations promote one system of religious beliefs over others. The fear is now becoming that with the present society being so quick to sue and the population in general being oversensitive to things they find offensive, the situation will become all the more punitive until the fight against indoctrination of religion may create a population devoid of identity.

When school prayer was first banned in public schools, the reasoning was valid. There was a large population of students who were not Christians, but were being required to participate in Christian prayer. Banning the practice ensured that these students were not made to feel uncomfortable, nor were they in any way forced to feel pressure because they did not belong to the majority religion. However, things have seemingly gotten quite a bit out of hand. People on the whole are so quick to seek remuneration for perceived damages, that the government as a whole is in fear of offending anyone. The result of this fear is that very little individuality is being allowed to formulate or develop. Instead of a group of non-Christian students being indoctrinated into Christianity, there is now a group of non-religious students being indoctrinated into a hegemonic relationship with all of their peers.

It is unlikely that this question will ever be satisfactorily answered for all parties concerned because both of the sides of the debate are adamant that their position is the correct one. Those who favor prayer in school say that the eradication of the practice has led to moral decay in the United States and that reinstatement would lead children to moral responsibility. They also assert that by banning prayer, the public school system is prohibiting their children from practicing their religion. Those that oppose prayer in school maintain that allowing the practice violates the constitutional mandate barring interrelation between church and state. It is unlikely that either side will abandon their position and let the debate rest.

Works Cited:

Duin, Julia. “School Prayer Charges Stir Protests.” The Washington Times. 2011. Print.

Eckholm, Erik. “Battling Anew over the Place of Religion in Public Schools.” The New York

Times. 2011. Print.

“Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.”

US Dept. Of Education. 2003. Web. 2012. http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/religionandschools/prayer_guidance.html