Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Issue of School Sanctioned Prayers

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, also known as the FFRF, is an organization that stands up for the rights of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, whenever they are encroached by religion. One of their pending lawsuits involves a South Carolina high school that violated a rule against sanctioning prayers. Let me take a look at this case within the view of the larger issue of religion in public schools.

I went to public school my whole life (except in pre-K) and I cannot ever once remember being forced to observe a religious prayer or activity during those 12 years. Inner city New York City public schools are a pretty secular environment. I did have a few teachers mention god when talking about their personal life, not in any proselytizing way, and when a junior high school science teacher died, I remember we did observe a moment of silence, which there is nothing inherently religious about. But all in all, it was very secular. It appears that public schools in the south and other rural areas of the U.S. apparently have a different story. I am aware of many incidences of teachers and school administrators leading prayers, and this is the issue taken up by the FFRF.

The problem I have, is that public school teachers and personnel are government employees, and they are figures of authority over the students. This I feel should make them ineligible to lead prayers while on school campuses, and while on the job.

Let's look at this issue in context with the first amendment. What people who oppose this lawsuit are saying, is that when a teacher leads students in prayer, no one is forced. Any student who wishes not to participate in the prayer does not have to. This they claim, is the first amendment's freedom from religion in action. Now while students may opt out of the school-sanctioned prayer, the problem is when it is a government employee, in a position of authority, leading a prayer that is going to outcast the students who don't want to participate, and in some cases, pressure them to observe the prayer or ceremony. This "officializes" the prayer as if it had government's stamp of approval.

It is not the role of government employees to be leading prayers while they are on the job. Just as I wouldn't want the clerks behind the counter at the DMV to suddenly drop to their knees and begin worshiping allah, or to encourage me to observe religious fasting, I wouldn't want similar acts taking place by public school teachers. When I need to use a government service, which is often when I have no choice, I do not want to be asked or encouraged to experience any religious activity. The bottom line is: government employees on the job should not be encouraging religious activity.

Now I have no problem with people observing their religious traditions in their private lives. The first amendment protects this right and religious freedom is one of our greatest achievements in the U.S. If students want to pray in a public high school, that is their right to do so too. Just because they are in a public building does not mean they should have to check their religion at the door. The issue is when public administration leads or sanctions prayers because then it is government respecting the establishment of a religion. I'm sure that most Christian parents of children in public schools would not be comfortable if their children's teacher was a very vocal, devout Muslim, who quite often spoke positively about Islam and lead daily prayers in the classroom in the Islamic tradition. That would be proselytizing in the classroom by a government employee onto young impressionable minds who by law are required to be there.

This very scenario is exactly why some religious people want creationism taught in the classroom and to allow school sanctioned prayers. They want god back in the classroom so that future generations of kids will be brainwashed into becoming religious. That is a parent's role, not government's role. In most parts of the U.S. the non-religious are the minority. The rights of those who wish not to observe must be protected, and the government in our public school system is the last place we need this right being violated.


  1. Michael,

    I think that you well illustrate the pushes and pulls that are now tearing at the fabric of our society, the consensus that had once held this nation together. I think that we are seeing its fragmentation, and I don’t think that there are any simple answers. Every values group wants to impose its own values, and wants to see the removal of the values of the “opposition.”

    What’s the answer? I think that you appropriately used the example of Islam to point out that we’d all resent a teacher pushing Islam in the public schools. However, we could make the same case regarding the pushing of National Socialism, Communism, Cannibalism, or Pedophilia – belief systems that we wouldn’t ordinarily call “religious.” Nevertheless, their imposition still presents the exact same issues as the imposition of Islam.

    Now, let’s add some other belief systems to our equation - Materialism, Multiculturalism, Moral-relativism, Religious-pluralism, Secular Humanism and Naturalism. These represent values-orientations – religions – and not facts. The values-clarification exercises – an extension of moral-relativism – teaches the students that there are no right or wrong answers. Rather, it’s just a matter of clarifying you beliefs and understanding those of others.

    Materialism makes the counter-factual assumption that our material world is all that there is, while Secular Humanism assumes that the human being is the end-all and be-all of all existence. I suspect that you would deny that these latter “isms” are religious in nature. However, others would regard these just as much as an unwanted and religious imposition as you would Islam.

    In fact, we can take our analysis even one step further. Any selection of textbooks, teachers or even classrooms reflects our religion or worldview. Any time we make a ruling, our worldviews are in view. Therefore, our problems and conflicts extend far deeper than differences presented by Judaism, Islam or Christianity. We are facing a Western crisis in terms of the conflict of our worldviews.

    Consequently, it is too facile and misleading to think that our problems will be solved by merely eliminating the “religions” from the public sphere.

    1. Manns Word you have completely missed the point of this blog. It has nothing to do with all that supposed smart talk that you just barfed onto the page. It was a simple blog about an issue that shouldn't be an issue along with abortion, gay marriage, or the death penalty.

    2. Paul, Daniel Mann likes to publish long winded comments and blog posts filled with pseudo-profundity. What he seems allergic to is actually thinking through his claims and actually supporting them with arguments and evidence.

  2. So you're basically saying that because you don't like school sanctioned prayer being banned in public schools, we now have to ban everything else YOU don't like, even though they're not religions, which is what the whole issue is about in the first place? How is this rational?

    In all my 12 years of public education, I cannot once remember being taught that National Socialism, Communism, Cannibalism, or Pedophilia were good. They were only mentioned within the roles they played within the context of history. The issue here is only school sanctioned prayer, because it violates the Constitution. But nowhere in our founding documents does it prohibit any other "isms" being taught; they never outline our economic system. If you have such a problem with the secular curriculum in public schools, why not just send your kids to private school, or home school them?

    The material world is the only one we can be sure of because we experience it everyday, and it can be tested and experimented with. Any other spiritual realm is mere speculation, and should therefore not be taught as fact.

    If your prescription for America's ills is a strict Judeo-Christian interpretation of life, imposed on our public school children, this would violate the Constitution. Our nation's founders created a secular democracy, not a theocracy, and so it is through secularism how our public institutions should be run. I know the extremely religious like you find that troubling, and you are actively trying to place religion into the public sphere. Why not simply keep your religion private unto yourselves where it belongs?



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