The Case Against Public School Prayer

From time to time friends or family post items on Facebook or other social media advocating the return of prayer to public schools. While well-intentioned, this is a serious mistake. Rather than write a lengthy reply each time this happens, I decided it’s time to create a blog post that lays out my position on the topic.

First of all there is nothing that prohibits an individual from silent prayer or other non-disruptive religious activities by individuals in public school. So the whole idea that you cannot pray in school is fallacious to begin with. What is prohibited is organized religious activity in schools such as joint public prayer. Public school is funded by the government and up until a certain age attendance is mandatory. This forces children to participate in government-sponsored religious activities which is a clear violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Check out this article from Wikipedia explaining the history of the ban on organized school prayer in public schools. Even after the ban on public prayer in schools I continued to silently pray a Catholic prayer before meals at lunch. I made the sign of the cross as is our tradition and received no ill will towards me for doing so.

While I appreciate that many people think school prayer is a good thing, my personal experience is that it tends to ostracize certain children. Back in the early 60s when the ban on public prayer in public schools came out when I was young, some well-intentioned people developed something called “Weekday Religious Education” in which public schoolchildren were given time off for an hour or so once a week to go attend some sort of religious education program mostly Bible study. It was usually held in a trailer or bus parked off the property of the public school.

Although it was cited as “nondenominational” it was by its very nature decidedly Christian and mostly Protestant. I was raised Roman Catholic. In those days the Catholic Church was not as ecumenical or tolerant of interfaith activities as it is today. In those days it was strictly forbidden for Catholics to participate in any religious activity that wasn’t 100% Catholic. In those days it was frowned upon by the church when Catholic parents sent their kids to public school at all. Unfortunately Catholic schools could not handle the special education needs of a kid in a wheelchair so I had no choice but to attend public school. As someone who has taught the Catholic faith to adults for over 30 years I can tell you that even though there is much agreement between Catholic and Protestant traditions on most of Christian teachings, their approach to understanding and interpreting Scripture is one area where there are noticeable differences. So a Bible study taught from a Protestant perspective can often be contrary to Catholic tradition.

Even something as simple as a children’s hymn can have theological implications. Consider the lyric “Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” While Catholicism believes that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, it does not follow the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (by scripture alone) meaning that the Bible is the sole authority for understanding God’s revelation. On the other hand Catholicism teaches that both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (the traditions of the Catholic church) are the sources from which we draw our certainty about what has been revealed. A Catholic version of the classic children’s hymn would awkwardly declare “Jesus loves me this I know. For the teaching of the holy Roman Catholic Church as expressed in the Baltimore catechism tells me so”. Hard to turn into a catchy song isn’t it?

So while most of my classmates went to this class, I and a couple of other Catholic students opted out at the insistence of our parents as guided by our church. That immediately cast us as outsiders, different, weird, a variety of other adjectives because we refused to go to Bible study. I’ve always opposed public prayer in schools for that very reason. I was on the receiving end of much prejudice because my beliefs were different than the majority. In the early 60s keep in mind there were still many fears that JFK as our first Roman Catholic president would somehow make the United States a puppet of the Vatican. That was the atmosphere at the time. There were no Jewish kids in my class but they would have even more reason not to attend. Furthermore what about Islamic children, Buddhist or Sikh students? Yet today they would be especially ostracized. For much of my young adult life I considered myself agnostic and out of respect for like-minded people would not have want to been singled out by my peers as some sort of heathen nonbeliever. Although I returned to the Catholic Church in my late 20s, I still maintain the deepest respect for the rights of agnostic and atheist people. Any form of organized religious activity in a public school serves to create division, prejudice, and even hatred.

Think about this… The First Commandment of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments prohibits having false gods. It is the most fundamental of the commandments. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits a government endorsed religion. In effect the First Amendment protects me from violating The First Commandment.. I think there is beauty and symmetry in that situation. It speaks to the ingenuity and genius of our founding fathers. Forcing children to pray in ways that are contrary to their traditions or contrary to their atheist beliefs is decidedly un-American according to the Constitution of the United States. Even if you allow people to opt out of such situations, you expose a captive audience to a contrary religious teaching and risk alienation and ostracize those who choose not to participate.

Even something as fundamental as the Ten Commandments is taught differently between Protestant and Catholic traditions. Catholic tradition is that The First Commandment prohibits the worship of false gods and idolatry. However Protestant tradition splits those into one prohibiting worship of false gods and one prohibiting idolatry (graven images). At the other end, Catholics separate the commandments on coveting your neighbor’s wife and coveting your neighbor’s goods into Commandments 9 and 10 while Protestant tradition combines these two into a single 10th commandment. The content is all they are in both traditions but the arrangement and numbering are different. That’s one of the reasons I oppose the display of the Ten Commandments on public property such as courthouses etc. The first question I ask is “Which Ten Commandments?” If you use a Protestant numbering you have endorsed a religion which is prohibited by the Constitution. You’ve alienated Catholics who number them differently. And vice versa should use the Catholic numbering system.

Those who advocate for school prayer believe that somehow it will cause us to raise children who are more moral and ethical. They look at the decline of respect for elders and general disciplinary problems within schools as well as school violence including gun violence. Their hope is that prayer is the solution to these issues. I believe in the power of prayer and encourage people to pray that we raise our children with a sense of tolerance, ethics, respect for life, and empathy towards everyone despite our differences. But keep in mind we can and must teach basic morality, ethics, tolerance, empathy, and respect for life without bringing religion and constitutional freedoms into the equation. The imposition of organized prayer in public schools has the potential to work contrary to those goals and can serve to divide rather than unite us around common moral principles.

So the bottom line is there still is prayer in public schools. The only thing that is prohibiting is organized public prayer in schools is a very very good thing.