For God’s sake, preclude prayer in school

If I had the power to offer a compromise to the advocates of school prayer, I would make the following proposal: A prayer could be offered in public school, as long as they agreed my minister would be the one to offer it.

But here’s the catch: My minister is one of those “liberal” preachers who believes Christianity should have more to do with the decency we show others than the scripture we recite.

He doesn’t believe the Bible can, or should, be read literally. He sees a loving and forgiving God, not a vengeful one. In other words, his perception of the Christian faith is about as far removed as possible from that of the most vocal proponents of prayer in public schools. And his prayer, my offer would stipulate, would reflect those differences.

Would they accept this offer? Not a chance. They would politely explain that what is needed in school is real prayer reflecting true Christian beliefs. And that, of course, is precisely the point.

Advocates of school prayer don’t want just any prayer in public schools; they want their kind of prayer. This aspect is overlooked in much of the public debate. Arguing whether to permit school-organized prayer is, as an abstract issue, a largely meaningless exercise for some.

It only becomes real when we address the harder question: Assuming school prayer were permitted, whose prayer would be given? Who would control the pulpit, or, in this case, the school’s public address system? With that control would come the power to decide whose ideas would be expressed, whose viewpoint would dominate and, ultimately, whose agenda would be advanced.

Certainly prayer is about worshiping God, but it is also about the advocacy of ideas. Most prayers offered aloud and in public are written more for the benefit of an earthly audience than for a heavenly one. The goal is to persuade those in the crowd – to bring them around to the speaker’s religious, social and political viewpoint, to give them religion, as defined by the speaker.

The strongest advocates of school prayer are those who believe that religion is the most important thing in life. Yet, at the same time, they criticize the government as utterly incapable of doing anything right.

So why, then, would these same advocates want to entrust their children’s religious education to the government? The answer, of course, is that it’s not their own children they want to reach through school prayer, it’s other people’s children. Their own children get more than enough spiritual guidance at church and at home. It’s other people’s children they believe need their help.

The battle by the religious right to “put prayer back into the public schools” is ultimately nothing less than a battle for access to other people’s children for the purpose of advocating ideas – ideas that often would be at odds with the beliefs held by the parents of those children or those children themselves. School prayer would be the vehicle to advance their religious and social agenda and contribute to their image of a better America.

But not everyone shares the same image. In most communities there are scores of different congregations representing a kaleidoscope of beliefs. If the religious right succeeded in getting organized prayer returned to the public schools, would they agree all faiths should be included in the process? That even religions in the local minority should get their turn? That Buddhists would get the same access to the public address system as Baptists?

And if so, would fundamentalist Christians really sit still while someone preached to their children about the virtues of Buddha, just as they expect Buddhist parents to sit still when someone preaches to their children about the virtues of Jesus Christ?

If the answer is no, then what does that tell us about the purpose of school prayer? Is it to be a celebration of all religious faiths, or a government-enforced coronation of one religious viewpoint, as decided upon by the religious majority of each community?

The religious right insists the school prayer they are proposing would be completely voluntary. If the son or daughter of Buddhist parents – or for that matter atheists or members of any religious denomination – did not want to participate in the
official prayer, he or she would be excused.

But to suggest that any school activity is truly voluntary when non-participation requires a student to publicly declare his or her deviance by separating from the group is to forget what it means to be a schoolkid. And no one finds the idea of being seen as an outsider any more terrifying than a child or adolescent.

But let’s suppose we decided to overlook these concerns and simply let the non-believers and the other-believers lump it or leave it. What limitations, if any, would we place upon the content of religious advocacy in the public schools? Would a member of the Southern Baptist Church be permitted to offer a prayer – consistent with the official tenets of that faith – asking God to help Jewish children to see the light and convert to Christianity? And if not, who would act as the censor?

Who would receive the dubious honor of being the religious traffic cop for the public schools? Perhaps this job would go to the teachers and principals, as if poor pay and bad working conditions were not enough to endure without also dropping them into the middle of a holy war. Or maybe it would fall on the school boards, and board elections could be fought not over how best to improve general education, but over who best represents the dominant religious views of a community.

And what sort of worship would survive the scrutiny of these religious traffic cops? If they did their job well, giving proper respect to our religious diversity, clearly only a well-scrubbed and sanitized version of religion, as bland and dry as unbuttered toast, would stand a chance of passing inspection. Would that really be the vehicle to foster religious belief?

At the end of the day, we are left with only two possible answers to the question of whose prayer would be given in the public schools. It would have to be either the prayer of the most politically powerful congregations or the prayer of no congregation at all – a dull, passionless compromise.

Plainly, neither of these results would satisfy anyone.

The establishment clause of the First Amendment was drafted and adopted by religious believers who deliberately set out to establish a secular government. They did so not to demean religious beliefs and practices, but to protect both religion and government from the trouble that occurs when the two are mixed. The wisdom of this policy is still quite apparent today.


Jillian Abram is a student in the College of Liberal Arts. Send comments to [email protected]