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Prayer in Public Schools: Would It Work?

Author: Rose'Ena Tanu
Posted: May 27th. 2012
Times Viewed: 3,512

It’s been a while since I saw it, but the idea has been bouncing around in my head since one morning I was driving into work. It was like any regular day. I was paying attention to the clock and got stuck at a red light. The SUV in front me had a couple of bumper stickers, and like any person, I tried to read them. The one that stuck out to me was calling to allow, nay even require, prayer in schools.

Since then, I have been thinking about this notion along with the whole separation of church and state and the cultural history of such issues, or at least what I personally know of them. I see a few potential problems with requiring prayer in schools, especially the public schools that operate through government funding.

To start off, let’s take a brief look at the people who are crying for prayer in schools. These are, for the most part, probably the same people who are also saying that the United State of America was founded as a Christian nation, even though the Founding Fathers specifically said it was not. They are probably the same people who say the reason we have so many problems in our current society is because God is no longer a daily, let alone a weekly, part of everybody’s lives.

But if you ask them to whom prayers should be addressed as part of school, they will tell you “the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Unfortunately this restriction leaves out quite a few valid belief systems, none of which pray to the Christ. However, I have been told that all other belief systems are not valid at all. This to me is a foolhardy personal blindness on the part of the people saying that.

I wouldn’t call these people fundamentalists, because we have seen in the news just how isolationist most of the extreme fundamental groups really are. From what I have seen, extreme fundamentalists would also have nothing to do with public schools because they are so insular; they have their own schooling system. So this issue doesn’t really affect them. Thus I truthfully don’t know what to call these people who demand prayer in school. Perhaps they are deluded or just don’t care. And perhaps they simply don’t want to see that not everyone is the same as themselves. Due to that, I don’t think requiring prayer in schools would actually turn out to be what they would want. I’ll explain shortly.

Even though this country has come a great way in allowing people of different religions, paths, believes, what have you, to have their freedoms, there is still work to do. The U.S. courts recognized Wicca and Paganism in the 1980s as religions that come with all due respect and responsibilities contingent with the First Amendment. Still, even though these beliefs have been recognized on the federal level, that does not mean they are recognized on the state and local level in all areas.

For those people that claim this country was founded as a Christian nation, I beg to differ. History shows us that, among other things, our Founding Fathers were not of any one particular sect of Christianity. Many of the Founding Fathers actually followed a system called Deism, which many would not today be classified as a branch of Christianity. So saying that America is a Christian nation is, to my view, a pipe dream.

Indeed, if one were to look into the history leading up to the founding of the United States and the writing of the Constitution, that person would find numerous references to wanting to escape the problems associated of having a state with a state-recognized religion. Think back to the Pilgrims, or the Puritans, who settled in Massachusetts. They were trying to escape the religious persecution associated with them being the minority in a religious state, England.

History shows that England has swung back and forth between differing sects of Christianity over the years. It all depended on whichever sect to which the current monarch or political leader professed. At one time, even the Puritans had been in power in England. With every one of those “swings, ” whichever religious sect was taken out of power then became the target of various forms of persecution, often to the extreme.

Do keep in mind that it wasn’t always the monarchy that enforced such actions. There have been times during history that a monarchy was overthrown and whatever religion the new regime followed would then take control. That group in control would then institute various rules to try and force the people to the regulated beliefs of the government. Those steps would often include forbidding other religious groups from having churches, let alone practicing at all.

Pushing a faith underground does not stop its continued existence in any one area. If people were caught practicing a version of religion against the rules of the nation, those people were then arrested, imprisoned, and often tortured or even killed, but none of that would stop the continuation of their beliefs. Look back to how early Christians were treated in the Roman Empire before it became the religion of the leaders. Or perhaps consider the societal atmosphere in England leading up to November 5, 1605, a day that is now marked every year as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night.

Because of these historical precedents, the Founding Fathers opted to not create a country with a state religion. In fact, they created a barrier to keep the church out of the government and everything that has to do with the government. In recent years, it seems as though that barrier has been worn down, including this whole discussion of allowing or requiring prayer in schools. The Founding Fathers didn’t want the people of this country to face the same persecution they themselves suffered through because they did not pray in the same way as government leaders.

Look at court cases in the last several years that have attracted the attention of the media. Perhaps the biggest, and most controversial, involved a sculpture of the Ten Commandments being displayed in a particular location: a courthouse. Courthouses, being part of one of the three arms of the government, are mostly secular, which to my view is what the Founding Fathers were aiming for in this country. I believe these honorable men did not want a government ruled by any one religion but instead a government that welcomed and represented all religions, no matter how diverse, no matter different.

There have been similar cases involving the Ten Commandments being posted in public schools, which is a direct tie into the whole discussion of having prayer in schools.

These public displays could be considered support for one particular belief system holding higher power than any other in this country.

The old saying dictates that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. It appears to me that people are now calling for a state religion, otherwise known as a theocracy, or a state-sanctioned religion in America. Once such a system is in place, the people who are different will be the ones to suffer. Need I mention the current theocracies that exist in the modern world, which are among the most restrictive, oppressive and prejudicial in the world? Need I mention some of the ways in which people who dare to believe differently are treated under such regimes?

Look at the religious split that led to the creation of Pakistan out of India. Look at the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq. Look at the Palestinians and the Israelis in Jerusalem. Look at the Protestants and the Catholics in Ireland. Look at the Huguenots and the Catholics in France. What about some of the conflicts that developed in the former USSR, including ones that drew the ire of the American people because of the resulting attempted religious genocide. Is this where we are going in our country? I fear it is, but hope not.

Before we get any further, let’s take a look at one form of prayer that is already in almost every public school in the nation, even though most probably wouldn’t consider it a prayer. What are the words to the modern "Pledge of Allegiance?"

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

I remember saying these words when I attended public school and I certainly didn’t think of them as a prayer at the time. Now that I look back on it, I do believe these words are being used as prayer that is sanctioned by public schools and the government.

In effect, this pledge has become a prayer because it is supposed to create the same kind unity between children of all ages that a congregation is supposed to find when it bows in prayer, no matter what prayer the congregation is actually using. It is a group of people saying the same words, though perhaps not with the same emphasis, all at the same time. If that’s not a prayer, then maybe I don’t know what a prayer is. However, I now consider the Pledge of Allegiance to be a form of government-sanctioned prayer in school.

When looking at the history of the Pledge, the words “under God” were not part of the original Pledge of Allegiance. Indeed, the Pledge itself didn’t exist until the late 1800s, more than 100 years after the English colonies declared independence in 1776, and also more than 100 years after American independence was recognized by Britain in 1783. In fact, those words, “under God, ” were not added until the 1950s, about 20 years before the nation celebrated its bicentennial.

Now most people would have heard about a lawsuit brought by Michael Newdow in 2002 that was settled in 2005. He claimed that making his daughter speak these words in school was a violation of her constitutional rights, specifically the First Amendment that gives the right of freedom of religion. That right has long been one of contention, especially considering that many neo-Pagans and modern thinkers seem to think “freedom of religion” should also mean “freedom from religion.”

So if I understand Newdow’s argument, it was basically that since he was an atheist, or a person who does not believe in a single God or any god, then his daughter should not be forced to pray to any god. Unfortunately for Newdow, the courts disagreed and the national scandal about the words “under God” has, for the most part, died down. I truthfully doubt those words will be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance any time soon, though I personally believe we should go back to the version before those words were added.

Now back to the issue of prayer in schools in general. My question to the people who want prayer in schools is which version (s) would be allowed? In any religion, there are multiple sects, each with its own variation on how to pray, what words to use and when to do it. So who will decide which manner will be used by public schools in any given area at given time? Look back at history. Forcing people to pray in one manner hasn’t worked out well before, so what’s to say it would work now?

It is the nature of people to rebel against something that makes them unhappy. Thus forcing people to pray in one particular style, especially if that style is not what the people are comfortable with, will only generate dissension. So which style would be the generally accepted one?

I’ll admit, I’m no religious expert though I have looked at and read at least a little bit about many of the major religions currently in use. One of the things I have noticed is that each one has a slightly different way of praying. Many Christians kneel, though not all of them. Some stand while they pray. The Voodun, and a few extreme evangelical or Pentecostal Christian groups, seem to prefer praying through rapture. The Muslims abase themselves entirely while facing East, or whichever direction points to Mecca. The Jews celebrate the Sabbath beginning Friday night and ending Saturday night. Tibetan monks chant and meditate to bring themselves more in tune to the energy of the world. Pagans gather in their sacred circles to chant, sing and worship, some standing with legs spread and arms stretched overhead to represent the elements.

So which of these diverse methods of prayer, or the many that I haven’t mentioned, would be the one practiced in schools? Should the government step in and require prayer in public schools, which method would it choose?

Catholicism is the number one “claimed” branch of Christianity in the United States at this time. However, many of those people will honestly say they aren’t active in the religion. So that inactivity could be what has taken God out of the everyday. You have to ask though, why are these people no longer active? Is it because they no longer believe? Is it because they don’t feel that the Church meets their needs? Would these people be very comfortable with having the government forcing everybody to pray in one prescribed manner?

I have heard people say that all the things wrong in this country, in modern society in general, can be blamed on the lack of God in daily life. So they offer the solution of requiring prayer in schools. But all the children bullying each other, the shootings, robberies, rapes, bombings and other such crimes, the apathy in the home, and much more probably have more causes than simply a lack of “God” and Jesus in life.

But again, which one would be “the one” set as the requisite for all? From the various manners of prayer, to allow them all would create nothing but cacophony and a discordant one at that. Unless all students who prayed a different way were separated to allow them the freedom to pray as they wish.

I can only imagine what this country would be like if the government of the United States decreed that all public school students were going to pray. Whether it’s once a week or everyday, there are so many issues that could spring from this very idea. Think back on the various ways I mentioned earlier in which the many religions practice. Though many children in a school might be some form of Christian, not all of them will be represented in all school systems. Thus not all of them, or their parents, would appreciate a prerequisite that the child pray in a manner not acceptable to the family’s beliefs.

I can think of two options in which required prayer might work in a public school setting. The first option I can think of is to separate the people of differing beliefs so they may pray as they wish. The second would be to keep all the students in together, but instead of having a prayer said aloud, allow them to sit quietly and pray silently in whichever manner they wish. Thus no one group or type of prayer takes precedence over another and no one else may take offense, though there will still be atheists who would protest this as unconstitutional. However, I would say that their children would not then be required to do anything at all but sit there quietly.

In the end, there is only one way I can think of in which religion really has a role in school: History. Religion has molded so much of our cultural history, and is by no means limited to the things I mentioned earlier and I haven’t touched on the bloodshed associated with it this time. So if there is a place to include it, take it in the context of the events of the time. That way, no one religion is given precedence over any other but all are kept within the purview of historical significance.

So I say to the people who want prayer in schools, find a private, religious school to send your children, one that professes to the way that particular family follows. If you want it badly enough, you will have to find the money to pay for it. And since private schools are not overseen by the government, for the most part, you can pray all you want, especially if you are Catholic, Protestant, Episcopalian or a few of the other branches of Christianity.

Copyright: SEK


Rose'Ena Tanu

Location: Charlottesville, Virginia

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