What About School Prayer?
Currently in the news is the suspension of an Alabama school teacher for refusing to participate in the state-mandated Moment of Silence. In Mississippi a high school principal was suspended without pay for allowing students to say a 21-word prayer over the intercom. What about school prayer? The Religious Right is making school prayer a hot agenda item. The Religious Right is trying to require prayer and/or Bible reading in the public school. What do you believe?
I am trying to make the point in this series of sermons that it is not enough for a Christian to say, "I think" or "I feel" as the final words on a subject. Expressing a personal opinion is not enough. I am challenging us in these sermons to do theological thinking, and, in particular, to use the method of the Quadrilateral. John Wesley urged his followers to seek input from four sources--Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience--when deciding what to believe or what is the right course of action to take. Let's apply this method to the contemporary issue of prayer in the schools.
1) Experience. What is your personal experience with prayer in a public school? How many of you went to a public school where prayer or Bible reading was part of the classroom experience? If so, what percentage of your public school were Roman Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, Buddhists, or atheists? When I went to school, we did not pray or read the Bible. As far as I know, Minnesota public schools did not promote or allow prayer. I suspect that schools, most likely in the South, which allowed prayer were really Protestant parochial schools, funded by the government.
2) Tradition, history. What has the Supreme Court actually ruled? Needless to say, there is a great deal of confusion. For example, did you read the letter to the Editor of the Merced Sun Star, printed last Monday?
Editor: A U. S. District judge has given Sikh students the okay to wear their kirpans to school...What I want to know is why Christian students or teachers can't take their "Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Eph. 6:17) to school? All they want to do is refresh themselves with the Word of God at break or lunch.
Once a year, See You at the Pole rallies are held on public school grounds across the country, promoted by the Southern Baptist Convention and Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice. See You at the Pole gathers students around the school's flag pole for a time of prayer. The purpose of See You at the Pole is to declare war on the U. S. Supreme Court's ban on prayer in the school. But, the Supreme Court has never banned personal prayer in public school. In fact, See You at the Pole rallies are allowed because a group of students standing around a flagpole praying has never been ruled unconstitutional! Prayer has never been banned. Students are perfectly free to organize prayer meetings and Bible studies on the school campus. There are several such groups meeting at our Merced schools.
What has the Supreme Court banned? What is prohibited is any type of official prayer that involves coercion. What is banned is the celebration or worship practice of any particular religion. Schools can teach about religion, schools can teach about the Bible, schools can sing sacred songs, but schools cannot worship, or force all the students to pray or celebrate. Christmas observance is a sticky issue, a fine line between learning and celebrating. Prayer at Commencement Exercises is definitely not allowed because all the students would be forced to participate, discriminating against those who want to exercise their right to not practice a religion.
The larger issue at stake here is the relationship between church and state. Historically, the genius of the American experience is the strict separation between church and state, a separation many in our day are trying to dissolve. The Religious Right--which includes people like Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell--like to refer to the United States as a Christian nation. But, we have never been a Christian nation. James Madison, one of the primary designers of our Constitution, and the other framers, explicitly rejected the idea that the United States should be officially Christian. They insisted on a system of separation of church and state that guarantees religious freedom for all individuals and groups. The Supreme Court has never endorsed the Christian nation concept as officially binding judicial policy.
In fact, America has always been a pluralistic country of many nationalities and religions. The genius of our American system is that in religious matters the government remains neutral. This freedom allows all citizens to practice their religious faiths freely, and not impose them on the government. It is not permissible for people to use the state to promote their free exercise of religion. The government cannot enforce religion, and no individual or group can impose their religion on the government, the public school, or anyone else. To require prayer and Bible reading in the public school classroom is an attempt to use the government to force religion on all the students.
Our public schools, along with all other institutions these days, get bad press! From a historical point of view, let's give credit to the public school. The public school has been given an impossible task, and has done exceptionally well. The public school takes students with all kinds of languages, national backgrounds, religions, customs and motivations; students with learning disabilities; students with emotional problems; students from dysfunctional families, and the school does an admirable job. Let me quote a Presbyterian minister, Robert H. Meneilly, in Liberty magazine, which is published by the Seventh Day Adventists.
I tremble for our nation when I hear extremists discredit our public school system, the only truly ecumenical program left in our community. The public schools take the poor and the handicapped, the abused and foster children, the Christian and the Muslim, the Roman Catholic and the Jew. They do more of the Lord's work every day than most other institutions.
3) Scripture. Of course, the Bible does not address school prayer directly, but it has much to say about prayer. In our lesson today, James wrote, 5:16, The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Paul urged, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Pray without ceasing, which includes praying in school, and which, we have discovered, is not against the law. You can pray in school as long as you don't do it over the intercom, or make it mandatory or compulsory. If I were a teacher in today's public school, I would definitely pray without ceasing. Under my breath, and with every breath, I would pray for strength, guidance, patience, understanding, and compassion.
4) Reason, which I expand to include theological thinking. May I share my current conclusions, and challenge you to formulate your own theology? I believe in the conservative position: The American genius of separating church and state should not be diluted. Attempts to pass a constitutional amendment requiring prayer in public places should be defeated. If prayer were permitted, how would it be conducted? How will someone from the Religious Right feel if their children were led in prayer by a Buddhist teacher praying to Buddha, or a Mormon teacher, or a Roman Catholic, or a Jew, or, a Methodist!! Politically correct prayers, that might offend no one, can hardly be called prayer. One lower court judge has allowed prayer that is free of all religious content! You figure that one out!
What about school prayer? You decide. I am sure we all can agree to pray for the public school, its students, teachers, and administrators.
© 1994 Douglas I. Norris