Saturday, February 2, 2008

School Prayer

Have you heard this one: “Our children can’t pray in school!” What about this one: “They won’t allow God in our schools!” Both are statements of concern regarding one of the ways American schools have changed since the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Both are rallying cries used by political and religious leaders calling for a return to ‘traditional values.’ Both statements are utterly false, the semantic equivalent of doggie doo.

Nearly every morning, as I walk from my classroom to the main office, I pass near the room where a before-school student prayer meeting takes place. Although the strumming guitar and “Kumbaya”-style devotional are not what I was raised with, I am reassured as I walk past that these children are free to celebrate their beliefs together. There is also a devotional group for teachers. The majority of student athletes are members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and they pray quite frequently. These are but a few of the many, many ways in which God and prayer are present on most campuses across America.

From a theological standpoint keeping a god from going where they will is a ridiculous idea. What religion, if any, worships a deity or deities so ineffectual that He, She, or They could be kept out of any school? What teacher, school board, or court could keep out the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God of Abraham? Or the all-powerful Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva? Or Buddha, finder of the eternal truth?

What, then, are these politicians and religious leaders talking about when they say that the Supreme Court has taken prayer—and God—out of American schools? The Supreme Court has never denied anyone a right to pray. All the Supreme Court has ruled is that it is wrong for schools to mandate prayer in any way that might be coercive to the impressionable young minds in their care. Make no mistake: schools are coercive environments. Students are actively coerced by teachers, administrators, and their peers into acting, speaking, dressing, behaving--and even thinking--in certain ‘appropriate’ ways each and every day.

If religious advocates are successful in bringing back mandatory school prayer, who will get to decide what ‘flavor’ of Christian prayer (and we must assume these prayers will be based on Christian-flavored monotheism) will be endorsed by each school and/or district? If Catholic-style prayers are used by District A, would it be grounds for Protestant students to transfer to District B, which had a distinctly Protestant prayer? Don’t forget that recent suits to stop school prayer in south Texas weren’t filed by atheists, but by Catholic students and parents who felt left out by the Protestant prayers recited before sporting events.

What of the Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu parents whose tax dollars are going to support a school system that blatantly favors some other religion over their own? Should they be entitled to lower tax rates? Should atheists have even lower rates because they admit to no gods at all?

What about teachers? Would their job descriptions be amended to include ‘prayer leader?’ As a teacher my answer is “I hope not.” The primary moral obligation of teaching is to be fair, a large part of which consists of treating each student as fairly and equally as possible regardless of faith, race, economic status, etc. How could any teacher even pretend to fulfill this moral obligation to fairness if we are, in effect, acting as the agent of a school district that endorses one student’s religion over that of other students? How could we look into the eyes of our non-Judeo-Christian students after leading the rest of the class in Judeo-Christian prayer and try to convince them that their beliefs were of equal worth? That we valued them equally with Judeo-Christian students? (And what of those Jewish and Christian students who were raised to think the idea of anything both “Judeo” and “Christian” is a joke?)

Schools in some places have tried to develop ‘prayers’ that are all things to all people. Somehow they think it is possible to piece together a semi-religious patchwork of platitudes, a sort of ‘prayer lite’ that’s less offensive and prays great. The very idea that some ‘neutral party’ can bend and twist the various beliefs of humanity into a perfectly inoffensive verbal pabulum is in itself offensive. If you’re going to pray, pray in full celebration of your faith, not with some mealy-mouthed pseudo-prayer.

Where, then, does this leave the idea of administratively-mandated school prayers? Do those who want to bring them back really want to coerce children of differing faiths into Christian prayer? Is it truly their wish to offend those holding other beliefs?

No. I honestly do not think so. Some people see bringing back mandated school prayer as a way to return to the “good old days.” A few desire it because it places an official ‘seal of approval’ on their own beliefs, which lets them feel superior to people of other faiths. For many more, it is merely a desire to share with others the faith that brings them peace, gives them comfort, and is, for them, the ultimate Truth.

Regardless of your reason for wanting to bring back administratively-mandated school prayer, quite a few folks across the U.S. of A. think the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does something right in refusing to allow our nation to endorse one person’s religious beliefs over the beliefs of another. I’m not ashamed at all to admit that this school teacher is one of them.

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