Absolutely nothing is wrong with prayer in school. There is something ethically wrong with disruptive prayer in the classroom. There is something constitutionally wrong with school-endorsed (mandated) prayer.
We are fortunate to live in a country that gives us freedom of religion (or lack thereof). If you want to pray to your god while you are at school then you have that right. Where the problems start is with the appropriateness of disruptive prayer in the classroom and when the words “mandatory”, “facilitated” or “endorsed” rear their ugly heads.
One also needs to know the difference between the classroom and the school. No brick wall prevents religious beliefs from entering public school grounds. There is a wall, called the Separation of Church and State, that prevents a particular religion’s proponents from endorsing their religion and promulgating their beliefs in public schools where students hold different religious beliefs and non-beliefs.
There is nothing wrong with a student praying silently during class as long as that prayer does not interrupt the classroom environment. The prayer should also not affect the student’s ability to perform in class. Children have every right to pray while they are at school. While it is certainly not against the law for a student to pray in the classroom, it is more appropriate for students to pray during non-class times like lunch, break, recess, and after school.
Group prayer (student-led and initiated) is fine as long as it does not interfere with other students. Forming religious clubs for after-hours activities is fine as long as all groups have the same opportunities and the school shows no bias toward or against any particular group.
As long as students pray appropriately with respect to others then there is absolutely no problem with it being done at school.
Appropriateness also goes into what is acceptable in public, as well. The children of a Voodoo Witch Doctor know that spilling the blood of a chicken during their prayer is not appropriate in public – much less public schools. Speaking in tongues or praying aloud is not appropriate in public – especially in the classroom environment. The Wiccan knows that getting naked to perform a ritual dance is not appropriate in public – especially in front of children at a school.
Then there is the issue of mandated prayer. Mandated prayer is a clear violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Who is pushing the agenda of prayer in the classroom? The Religious Right and Christian Fundamentalists are the biggest proponents. When is the last time you heard a Wiccan, Buddhist or Jew demand prayer in public school?
Have Fundamentalists really thought this issue through? What will happen when they mandate prayer in public school classrooms? Do they realize that they will open Pandora’s Box?
Because of our freedom of religion, the government cannot pass any law or legislation that endorses any particular religion. Mandated prayer in public school classrooms is against the law.
Will Christians allow Satanists to pray in public schools? Will Christians allow the Wiccan to offer prayers and chants before a high school football game? Based on the information available from the mandated prayer proponents, the freedom of religion for non-Christians does not count. What they want is a Theocracy run by Christianity. They do not want the Muslim and Hindu children to pray in school. They want them to pray to the Christian god.
Do you think they would be as enthusiastic about forced school prayers if their child’s teacher was a Muslim or the principal of the school was Hindu? Have they thought about what sect of Christianity will lead the prayer? Pentecostal? Mormon? Baptist? Catholic? Adventist? Jehovah’s Witness? Methodist? Will the Baptist allow a Catholic to lead their child in prayer?
We have FREEDOM OF RELIGION here in the United States. That means you can believe whatever you want as long as you do not push it on others and it harms no one else (you can’t say that rape or murder is a part of your religion). If you bring mandated prayer into the public school classroom and 85% of the class is Christian, how do you think the Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Wiccan, and atheist children will feel? Kids already deal with enough peer pressure from drugs, alcohol, sex and cigarettes; why give them something else to worry about?
For the Christians; remember what Jesus said, (Matthew 6:5-8):
MATTHEW 6:5-8: 5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
Are atheists offended by school prayer?
When a student prays in private then there is no reason for an atheist to be offended. Even if a student prays aloud, there is really no need for an atheist to be offended. An atheist might look at it as ‘silly’ or ‘a waste of time’, but they certainly should not be offended.
If the prayers are school sanctioned or faculty led, then atheists should be greatly offended. Not just atheists should be offended at facilitated, mandated, or forced prayer in public schools – everyone should. If the prayer is based on Christianity, then what about the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Unitarian, Pagan, and atheist students? If Catholics lead the prayers then how will the Baptist and Mormon students feel?
In addition to being offensive and anti-pluralistic, it is against the law. The Constitution of the United States prohibits the government from endorsing a particular religion. If the schools offer a prayer then they have to offer a prayer for EVERY religion. This means we would have to sit through a prayer from a Christian (every sect), Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Voodoo Witch Doctor, atheist, Pagan, Jew, Satanist, and every other religion you can think of. That is not very practical. The best approach for schools to take is a secular approach – let the students worry about their own religious and none-religious beliefs.
Students can pray all they want, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. The school staff and the school in general cannot lead in prayer or endorse a particular religious belief, dogma, or ritual.
The establishment clause (separation of church and state) is there to protect everyone, including the religious majority. The Christian student is free to be a Christian because the government and schools are not endorsing and promoting Islam. The Muslim student is free to be a Muslim because the government and schools are not endorsing and promoting Christianity. The atheist student should not feel offended or pressured because the schools and government are not endorsing and promoting any religion. Well, at least they are not supposed to be.
Pray all you want – it does not offend us. Be polite and do not interrupt the classroom environment (pray quietly) and be ethical and do not rub people’s noses in your beliefs (over the PA system at football games). Just remember what Jesus said (re-read Matthew above) about public prayer and we should not have any problems.