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Prayer in Modern School

The Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, in which twelve students and one teacher died, is one of many events that raised the issue as to what role religion has in the life of public education. Right after the tragedy, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page was alive with debate over an article written by syndicated columnist, Peggy Noonan. Writing about the “culture of death” of which the two shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were a product, she observes: “A man called into a Christian radio station this morning and said a true thing.

He said, and I am paraphrasing: those kids were sick, and if a teacher had talked to them and said, “listen, there’s a way out, there really is love out there that will never stop loving you, there’s a real God out there and I want to be able to talk to you about him”—if that teacher had intervened in that way, he would have been hauled into court” (Noonan, A19). Peggy Noonan agreed with the man’s observation and went on to write: “It occurs to me at the moment that a gun and a Bible have a few things in common.

Both are small, black, have an immediate heft and are dangerous—the first to life, and the second to the culture of death” (Noonan, A19). The next day, a reader by the name of Bill Bailey responded to Ms. Noonan’s editorial. In his letter to the editor, he commented: “I send my children to public school to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. I do not send them to school to be lectured on the virtues of believing in a personal God… .Teachers have no business lecturing my children on the virtues of religion (separation of church and state).

Religion teaches people to stop thinking. When theists confront a difficult problem, they start praying, thereby saying: “God, I cannot solve this problem; so I am turning this over to you to solve. ” Non-theists prefer to keep thinking in hopes of solving the problem themselves” (Bailey, A19). Reading such letters reinforces my position that people on both sides of the religious liberty debate are in many ways uniformed about the role of religious liberty in American history and its relationship to public education.

It is important to remember that current religious liberty did not simply fall out of the sky and appear for people to enjoy at their choosing. It was the fruit of many years of political debate and is safeguarded by the Bill of Rights. On December 17, 1999, Secretary of Education Richard Riley wrote a letter to the principals of public schools on the issue of religion in public schools. In that letter he reminded them that a majority of Americans have sadly misunderstood the relationship between public education and religion.

In 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled that state-sponsored prayer was unconstitutional, most people mistakenly took this to mean that no religious expression was to be permitted. The Supreme Court, Riley stressed, did not imply this in its ruling. The Vitale ruling did not prohibit individual students from expressing their religious faith. Over the years without any serious attempt to clarify the meaning of the relationship between public education and religious expression, the subject has become extremely divisive.

Parents, teachers and administrators are not sure as to what they are allowed to say or even do. The confusion has reached such a level that in the last few years, school officials, clergy of many faiths, and civil libertarians are beginning to work together to research and review Supreme Court decisions and other lower court decisions to see what has actually been said on religious liberty and expression in the public schools (Letter, 1999). What is arising is a deeper understanding and a fresh awakening of the proper place religious expression has in America’s public schools.

Those on both sides of the issue have moved toward the middle in hopes of finding common ground in their desire to protect the freedoms of those with whom who they might disagree. By respecting their opponents’ constitutional freedoms, they are in the long run protecting their own. Many are beginning to understand afresh that the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights are more than old documents to be found in a museum. Every generation of Americans must take responsibility to explain how the United States Constitution protects the rights and freedom of everyone.

President Bill Clinton, in a statement to American educators in 1998, stressed his belief that the rights of teachers and students and their freedoms of conscience do not stop at the front doors of the schoolhouse. “For more than 200 years,” he wrote, “the First Amendment has protected our religious freedoms and allowed many faiths to flourish in our homes, in our work place and in our schools. Clearly understood and sensibly applied, it works” (Letter, 1999). Within the schoolhouse, school officials must protect the balance of freedom that the First Amendment allows concerning religious expression.

They must protect the freedom of each student who wishes to speak out about matters of religion and protect those who prefer to say nothing at all about religion. Schools must not sponsor religious activities or express any opinion for or against a student who personally expresses a religious belief. Those who fall on either side of this issue should keep in mind that the First Amendment protects students of all faiths from any one faith defining how religion will be expressed on the public school campus. The First Amendment protects a student’s right to personal voluntary prayer and expression of faith without discrimination.

It also forbids anyone from having a captive audience or forcing anyone to participate in any type of religious activities. The First Amendment underscores the feet that America is a nation of many faiths and that the religious rights of all students must be protected. Secretary Richard Riley has stated: “Our public schools should not be the public space for a war on values but the public space where we educate our children, help them to build good character, and teach them about the many freedoms, including the freedom of religion, that are embodied in our nation’s Constitution” (Letter, 1999).

Prayer in School as a Constitutional Right One of the most hotly contested issues concerning American education is the right of students to pray openly. Whenever the subject is debated, it reveals strong convictions and deep emotions in those on both sides of the issue. Many Americans believe the 1961 Supreme Court decision in its Engel v. Vitale school prayer ruling was nothing more than 4 kicking God out our nation’s schools. Many have taken the position that this decision has contributed to the moral breakdown in our schools and to the secularization of our society.

What the Supreme Court stated in the Engel v. Vitale case of 1961 is that the New York school that held daily invocations to God was in fact promoting and establishing religion. Justice Black, in his opinion, emphasized that it is “no part of the business of government to compose official prayers” and he further elaborated that “each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayer” (Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421 at 425, 1962). People seem to forget that public schools are government institutions.

In California, a high school basketball coach who prayed regularly with his team was instructed by the school superintendent to cease praying with the players. The school district had been threatened with a lawsuit because of the coach’s actions. The coach continued to insist that he should be allowed to pray with his players. Since they had been praying, the team had been quite successful (Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421 at 425, 1962). Charles Haynes, who is considered a leading authority on church/state issues, raised the question why anyone would care if a coach prays with his players.

At first glance, he noted, such a concern seemed trivial. With deeper inspection, however, it was clear that such prayer struck at the heart of the fundamental principles of religious liberty. “It really isn’t about a three-minute prayer before a game,” Haynes wrote. “It’s about protecting the conscience of every student and keeping the government out of the religion business” (Haynes, 1999). The potential harm of allowing a coach to pray with the players may not seem apparent at first glance, but such actions by this coach can signal to other faculty members that they can endorse or downgrade religion in the presence of students.

There may be a player who may not want to pray, but with the coach joining the huddle, he may resist speaking up, not wanting to displease the coach (Haynes, 1999). It should be remembered that the coach is a government employee and as a government employee he is not to organize or participate in student religious activities. Does this mean the players cannot pray? No, players can pray all they want. They can pray alone or pray together. Haynes writes, “A good coach is there for each and every student—students of all faiths or none.

Coaches may model the core moral values of their faith—I hope they do – but they should model the principles of religious liberty” (Haynes, 1999). Haynes recommended that for next season the coach should say to his players: “Those of you who wish to pray before the game are free to do so. Those of you who don’t, please wait quietly for a few minutes. I am not going to participate in the prayer huddle; that’s not my role as your coach. I’m here to make sure that each of you is treated with fairness and respect” ( Haynes, 1999).

What the Court has stated concerning prayer in schools is that it prohibits state-sponsored prayer by school officials. However, it guarantees a students’ right to pray. In Engel v. Vitale the Court ruled: “It has been argued that to apply the Constitution in such a way as to prohibit state laws respecting an establishment of religious services in public schools is to indicate a hostility toward religion or toward prayer. Nothing, of course, could be more wrong” (Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421 at 425, 1962).

The Court has made clear that students may pray together or alone in public schools as long as they are not disruptive or hindering the rights of others. Such prayer has to be student-initiated and voluntary. For example, they can pray around flagpoles before or after school hours. They can pray before or after sporting events. They can pray before eating their meals in the cafeteria. They can sit at their desk in the classroom and pray silently as long as it does not conflict with school activities. Prayer is permissible in the public school.

On August 11, 1984, the Congress of the United States passed the Equal Access Act. The Act was intended to clear up confusion that was created by three controversial decisions made by the United States Supreme Court. These decisions were Engel v Vitale (1962), Abington School District v Schempp (1963), and Murray v Curlett (1963). These decisions by the Supreme Court created a storm of protest and debate that has continued for nearly forty years. In Engel v. Vitale the case focused on the New York State Board of Regents, which had prescribed a prayer to be said each morning before class asking God’s blessing.

The Supreme Court ruled that this prayer was a religious activity by the Board of Regents and it was unconstitutional for a government agency to write prayers or force public school students to recite prayers devised by the agency. In Abington School District v. Schempp, the Schempp family brought suit against the state of Pennsylvania arguing that its Fourteenth Amendment rights were being violated by the state when it required that at least ten verses of the Bible be read at the beginning of each school day. In order to be excused from such readings, students had to have a written excuse from their parents or guardian. In Murray v.

Curlett, Mrs. Madalyn Murray and her son, William J. Murray, both atheists, brought suit against the Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City for allowing the reading of a chapter of the Bible or the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer before the start of each school day. The Murrays argued that such practice was a violation of their rights to freedom of religion under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Murrays stating that the Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore was violating the Constitution in allowing for Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer before class.

These decisions by the Supreme Court were quite confusing to many school boards across the country. Many school boards began making policies based on mistaken views as to what these Supreme Court decisions meant. For instance, in Boulder, Colorado, a group of students numbering two or more could not sit together for the purpose of spiritual or religious discussion. In Indianapolis, youth pastors or church workers were prohibited by school officials to pick up students after school hours. In Philadelphia, students were reprimanded for discussing their faith and sharing with students a booklet that contained Bible verses.

In Minnesota, a fourth grade student was disciplined for bowing his head and praying before eating lunch. The Equal Access Act clearly states that students can meet together to discuss religious topics on a public secondary school campus in the same manner as other student groups do. The law is clear that if school officials allow extra-curricular clubs such as chess club and Boy Scouts, the school is obligated to allow Bible studies or religious clubs as well (The Equal Access Act, 20 U. S. C. 4071-74). Prayer in School: Scholar Support

The inclusion of prayer in the nation’s public school classrooms has been an issue affecting the United states throughout its history. The nation’s founding fathers recognized the inherent problems, and took great pains to insure the separation of church and state in the new nation. For public school administrators, the issue of school prayer presents a host of problems both within and outside the school. Administrators would be better prepared to deal with controversies such as school prayer if they more fully understood those who support School Prayer.

Analyzing the make-up of School Prayer supporters could aid the school administrator in anticipating and effectively handling the issue when it arose (Hartlieb, 19). The issue of voluntary school prayer continues to be controversial. According to a 1991 Time/CNN poll, 78% of American adults were in favor of voluntary school prayer (Ostling, 60). The primary motives given for favoring school prayer continue to be bearing public witness to America’s religious heritage and staving off moral decline. Opponents of school prayer, however, are concerned about minority religious groups and preserving the wall between church and state.

Proponents also claim that the Supreme Court has never specifically ruled on the legality of voluntary student prayer. Many states have passed laws allowing student-led prayers (Ostling, 60). Prayers in schools need not conform to any set rule. Gushee maintains that teaching children to pray will make them understand the values of spiritual thoughts. Children should not be asked to pray to any particular god (Gushee, 31). Farmer sees the school prayer movement as a threat to both academic and religious freedom (Farmer, 248).

He describes how the mere existence of school-sponsored prayer, regardless of the wording in the prayer, corrupts both the school and the act of prayer. A New Jersey law permitting a period of silence in schools was struck down by a federal court judge who agreed that School Prayer threatened religious freedom (Farmer, 249). Policy development in religious studies should follow the same processes chosen for other new initiatives. A public information program as well as teacher training should be included in religion Curriculum planning (Ehrhardt, 2). Knight mentions other potential problems with school prayer (Farmer, 29-30).

Issues such as the establishment of religion, the free exercise of religion, equal access to school property, possible coercion in the classroom, the nature and purpose of prayer, and the rights of religious minorities and nonreligious groups are discussed in the context of competing values that are at stake in policy decisions in this area. Interpretation of the establishment clause of the Constitution has followed two distinct paths—one embracing the principle of separation of church and state, the other stressing the importance of accommodation between them.

The First Amendment allows individuals to search for truth through scripture or through the study of natural law. Hiller (1982) finds that school prayers would violate this right. When Hartlieb studied the school prayer issue, he found that only educational level proved useful in predicting School Prayer support (Hartlieb, 87-88). Social class, another pertinent political characteristic, has also proved helpful in anticipating support for School Prayer. Geographical characteristics were of no use in predicting school prayer support, but income status and occupation were relevant economic characteristics.

Of the religious characteristics examined, church attendance, practice, the importance of religion, and the respondents’ views of the relevance of the Bible were also helpful in identifying School Prayer supporters (Hartlieb, 91-92). Scott determined the level of knowledge of Pennsylvania classroom teachers about: the constitutionality of various forms of oral prayer in the public schools is important (Scott, 1145). Their knowledge of attitudes toward the constitutionality of school prayer was on a moderate level.

Wells stated that Senate Republicans objected to the House-Senate compromise on school prayer in the Goals 2000 education policy conference report (Wells, 745). The original provision, authored by Senator Jesse Helms, stated that schools which did not provide a forum for students wanting to participate in voluntary prayer would be ineligible for federal education funds. The compromise prohibited the use of federal funds to prevent students from voluntarily praying. Bibliography The Equal Access Act, 20 U. S. C. 4071-74 Engel v.

Vitale, 370 U. S. 421 at 425, 1962 Letter to Principals on Religion and Public Schools, from Richard Riley, Secretary of Education. Washington, DC. 17 December 1999 Noonan P. The Culture of Death,” The Wall Street Journal. 22 April 1999, A19. Bailey B. Don’t Blame Shooting on ‘Absent’ God, ” ” The Wall Street Journal. 28 April 1999, A 19 Charles Haynes, “Coach is Out of Line by Leading Prayers,” The Freedom Forum Online, March 1999 available <http://www. freedomforum. org/templates/document. asp? documentID=8997>. Ehrhardt, M.

Religion in public schools: Free exercise, information, and neutrality. Updating School Board Policies, 21. 1-3, 1990 Farmer, R. The school prayer issue. Education, 104, 248-249, 1984 Ostling, R. N. Is there a place for God in school? Time. 143, p. 60, 1994 Scott, M. F. Knowledge, attitude, and practice of school prayer by Pennsylvania classroom teachers (Doctoral dissertation, Lehigh University, 1986). Dissertation Abstracts International. 47. 1145, 1986 Wells, R. School prayer delays goals, keeps Senate at work, Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report. 52. 745, 1994 Gushee, S. (1994).

The last word on school prayer: It sure isn’t amen. Church and State. 42(6), 20 Hartlieb, G. G. Voter attitudes toward prayer in the public schools (Doctoral dissertation, southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1986). Dissertation Abstracts International. 47. 2394, 1987 Knight, J. D. Christian ethics and responsible citizenship in church-state affairst The debate o ver prayer in the public schools (Doctoral dissertation, Duke University, 1986). Dissertation Abstracts International. 48. 415, 1986

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