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Saturday, December 24, 2011

The truth about school prayer

From the Washington Posts Answer Sheet

By Charles Haynes

The latest attack on the “godless public schools” — a staple of Republican primaries past — is a new ad in Iowa by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign proclaiming there’s “something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

Advocating for “school prayer” is, of course, a poll-tested winner for politicians seeking to stir voter outrage — and establish Christian conservative bona fides.

Michele Bachmann also took up the cry at a recent town hall in Iowa, declaring that government censors religion in public schools. She added a new twist to the charge by saying that Muslims get to practice their faith in schools, but “Christian kids aren’t allowed to pray.”

The claim that public schools are hostile to Christians may rev up caucus-goers in Iowa, but there’s only one problem: It isn’t true.

Truth be told, students of all faiths are actually free to pray alone or in groups during the school day, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others. Of course, the right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion does not necessarily include the right to preach to a captive audience, like an assembly, or to compel other students to participate.

Visit public schools anywhere in America today and you’re likely to see kids praying around the flagpole, sharing their faith with classmates, reading scriptures in free time, forming religious clubs, and in other ways bringing God with them through the schoolhouse door each day.

As for celebrating Christmas, students are free to say “Merry Christmas,” give Christmas messages to others, and organize Christmas devotionals in student Christian clubs.

It’s true that some public school officials still misunderstand (or ignore) the First Amendment by censoring student religious expression that is protected under current law. But when challenged in court, they invariably lose.

In fact, contrary to culture-war mythology, there is more student religious speech and practice in public schools today than at any time in the past 100 years.

When politicians demonize the courts for banning God from schools, they count on public confusion about the First Amendment distinction between government speech promoting religion, which the establishment clause prohibits, and student speech promoting religion, which the free-exercise and free-speech clauses protect.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that kids can’t pray in school. What the Court has done — and continues to do — is to strike down school-sponsored prayers and devotional exercises as violations of religious liberty.

As a result of those decisions, school officials may not impose prayers, or organize prayer events, or turn the school auditorium into the local church for religious celebrations.

Students, however, aren’t the government; they can — and often do — openly pray and share their faith in public schools.

When asked to clarify his claim that students can’t pray in schools, Perry said he was objecting to the Supreme Court’s prayer decisions in the 1960s because he thinks local school boards should be free to organize prayers if they so choose. He didn’t say whether he understood that kids are currently free to pray in school on their own.

Apparently, Perry wants to return to the days of school-sponsored prayer, overturning Court decisions by what he calls “activist judges.” If elected, he promises to push for a constitutional amendment to allow it — something Newt Gingrich tried and failed to do when he was in Congress.

If state-sponsored religious practices are what Perry, Bachmann and other candidates mean when they call for “prayer in school,” then why don’t they just say so — and stop telling voters that kids “can’t pray in schools”?

Could it be because they know that most Americans, if given the choice, would prefer the religious freedom students now have over a return to government-mandated prayers?


  1. I was there at the beginning, so I feel I can speak to this subject with some historical and personal knowledge.

    First, let me cover Perry. Although a registered Republican, at best, I can only smile at Perry, while laughing at his ignorance, if you take his words at face value. This is the type of meaningless political pandering to the ignorance of the audience rampant in both political parties today. That people still fall for it is probably its own indictment of our school systems, personal willingness to learn, and political ignorance.

    When I started school, Bible reading and prayer were a part of each school day. It was used primarily to teach good behavior and good citizenship. Often, I have looked back on my first year or two of school, attempting to see the good and the bad of the way Bible reading and prayer was handled in my school. I stated above, what seemed then and today to be the main purpose of the two. It is possible, a teacher, school, or a religion might have been able to consistently push a particular Christian religious agenda. Plus, it must be conceded it was dedicated to a Christian majority. Where I went to school, few if any Jews appeared in my public school, no Muslims, Hindus, nor Buddhists, etc. Knew no atheists, either.

    In my school, the practice was usually to have a student read some Bible verses, with a student explanation, if the verses were not obvious in their meaning. The teacher might sometimes assist with the meaning or at times the teacher may have read the verses. This was first grade, so student's reading and comprehension must be taken into account by the teacher. Add also, I believe the teacher often chose the verses to be read. Prayer was always an individual thing done as a group before lunch. Perhaps after Bible verse reading too, but I do not specificly recall a prayer after the reading of Bible verses.

    Overall, I've always deemed these to have been harmeless and helpful to teaching good manners and self-discipline. The then mandatory Pledge of Allegiance took up more time each morning than Bible verse reading and the lunch prayer combined. The Pledge continued as part of my school life through my senior year of high school as I recall, ceasing to be meaningful to most students at varying ages.

    End Part 1

  2. Part 2

    Then came the banning of teacher organized school prayer and Bible verse reading by the Supreme Court, with various lawsuits following to clarify the ban; confusion in school systems and schools, parents' lives, and students' lives, as to what was and wasn't allowed reigned. This remained true through-out the rest of my school years and beyond. In Florida, the great "Moment of Silence" was invoked as a legal way to permit students to pray, if they chose to.

    Even before the ban, there had long been a major debate over prayer and Bible reading due to conflicts among the various Christian faiths, themselves, pitting one Christian religious faith against another. This has been forgotten, as Christians realized the diviskon allowed them to be conquered, intentionally or unintentionally, by atheists and the non-religious, through the court system and laws that have been enacted at all levels.

    Did the ban do harm? YES! In ways so subtle I lack words to explain it to myself, harm was done to students, families, and entire school systems, thanks to the original Supreme Court ban, court follow-ups, and laws passed at all levels. I am convinced the major Christian faiths would have accomplished what one atheist accomplished, in the long run. That too would have done more harm than good.

    Prayer, Bible reading, and religion in schools served best to instill manners, good citizenship, self-discipline, and morality. All components largely missing from schools today. The tendency I find toward Libralism and an "anything goes" mentality, as I moved toward graduation, in schools I attended, filled the vacuum left behind, where school prayer and Bible reading once stood guard.

    That some schools (the state) supported prayer, is strongly seen in the so-called, "Moment of Silence" rule that began each day of my high school years, is testament, that even a Liberal school environment, saw value in the right of a student's freedom to believe.

    Even if a benevolent dictator took over the country today, I estimate it would take U.S. schools 2 to 3 generations to get back to where schools were when I entered elementary school. This is not going to happen. Therefore, we must find a new, better way to deal with schools than exists today. The majority of my property tax dollars goes toward our public schools. I'm not seeing positive results from the schools use of my tax dollars. I see a poor use of those dollars by politicians, schools, teachers, students, and the business community. I only see it getting worse. Why?

  3. Some further comments. After many years of thought, I've concluded, the necessary nature of being a teacher calls for a good dose of natural liberalism. It does need the balance of a solid dose of conservatism, as well. Politics, along with people's beliefs they know exactly what schools need, confuses these truths. Thus, we are divided into camps of opposition.

    Having once served as a substitute teacher, I can say, the majority of teachers know how to teach. They understand and care about their profession. At the same time, teachers, as happens in any field, get into routines and ruts, which may not be beneficial to their students, to education, and to themselves, as professionals. Then enters the benevolent bureaucracy, which is supposed to help, but often hinders every level of education. In the 21st. Century, the teacher should be the focal point of dispersing education to a dynamic student population. More and more, I find teacher and student ignored in the education process. Too often this happens with the best of intent.

    At its best, education is a partnership of all involved. The goal is two-fold: 1.) To arm the student to the best of his/her ability to achieve the student's goals in life; 2.) To enable the student to help society to achieve its highest goals. These are lofty words and goals, true. However, it seems we once were closer to them than we are today.

    I had many teachers who were unqualified at the time I had them. Their skills and support for meeting those goals wasn't there. It hurt my education; it hurt my life. Yet, these were unavoidable at that time. I was not in a good position to overcome these hindrances on my own. Yet, I had the dawn of the space-age, science, literature, tv, movies, and Rock music to help educate me and show me, a larger world and vision existed for me to consider. I didn't fully understand my personal limitations in that world, which would limit my participation in it. That's life, it happens.

    If we combine the best of liberal educational thinking, with the best of conservative educational thinking, then get out of the way of the teachers and students to let them apply it, there should be fewer people who reach my age, frustrated over what might have been, but wasn't.

    I accept that some of my own teachers hated Republican Nixon and all Republicans. Though fewer in number, you will find liberal haters in education too. Both sets of educators should focus on education and working together. Anything less is a dereliction of duty that destroys education. So, I believe in liberals and conservatives in education. We need both. Your teacher should be liberally open to ideas, yet conservative enough to test them first, to see if they work.

    One day, I hope Duval County education leads the state and the country. I doubt it will in my lifetime, if ever. It seems dedicated to ignorance, stupidity, and failure.