Prayer in School: It Is About More Than Separation of Church and State

Time for Prayer in School Yard
Time for Prayer in School Yard (Photo credit: peretzp)

In my previous post about prayer in school, I focused on the question of why some religious believers are not satisfied with the right of students, staff, teachers, and administrators to engage in silent prayer at school. In this one, I'd like to take a look at why the subject of prayer in school is something about which we should all be concerned.

Separation of Church and State

If you ask some atheists why they object to prayer in school, they will explain that it represents a violation of separation of church and state. Assuming that we are talking about teacher-led prayer in public schools, they are right to point this out. One reason why it makes sense to object to school prayer is that it is constitutionally prohibited. When religious believers push school prayer, they are asking school personnel to do something they cannot legally do. We generally expect the schools to which we entrust our children to obey the law.

And yet, the fact that teacher-led prayer in public schools is legally prohibited does not always resonate with others, including some atheists. While separation of church and state is certainly one reason why we should care about school prayer, it might be valuable to examine a few others.

Protecting Children

When we talk about school prayer, we are talking about our children. Those of us old enough to remember the days before formal teacher-led school prayer was prohibited remember all too well what this was like for children who were being raised in non-Christian religions or no religion at all. And I suspect that those of us born after this time remember enough about our experiences in school that we can imagine quite well what it must have been like.

When a public school pushes religion, children who do not identify with the religion being pushed become outsiders. It is already too common for children to be subjected to the torment of their peers; the introduction of religion amplifies this unfortunate process. When the school itself creates and maintains the outsider status by promoting religion, it becomes complicit in the bullying, reduction of support, and other negative outcomes faced by the children who fall outside the preferred religion. An important part of why we do not want school-sanctioned prayer is that we recognize the hostile environment it creates for non-religious children and those who belong to religions other than the one being pushed.

The child from an atheist, Jewish, or Catholic family attending elementary school in the South will almost certainly face attempts at conversion and various forms of religiously-motivated bullying from children raised in the Southern Baptist tradition. This is likely to happen regardless of whether school prayer is present. But imagine how much worse it is when the child's teacher and other school personnel are also part of the problem. Where does such a child turn for a reprieve?

Religious Freedom

It is also important to remember that the separation of church and state is designed to go both ways (i.e., the state is protected from religious influence, and religion is protected from state influence). As much as we atheists tend to focus on freedom from religion, the freedom of religion is part of it too.

School sanctioned prayer is inconsistent with the religious freedom of members of minority religions. How should Jewish parents feel about their child being subjected to Christian prayers at school each day? What about the public school teacher who tells their child that she must accept the divinity of Jesus or she will go to hell? How should the Catholic parents feel about their child being targeted for conversion by evangelical fundamentalist Protestants at school? What about the public school librarian who makes disparaging comments about how Catholics aren't real Christians? Shouldn't these parents be able to send their children to a public school without facing this sort of garbage?

I cannot imagine that families who belong to religious traditions other than the one preferred by the school are thrilled about their children being subjected to someone else's prayers. They probably do not welcome this any more than atheist families do. The solution is obvious. School-sanctioned prayer cannot be permitted in public schools. Public schools must remain neutral with regard to religion, and the best way to do that is the function as religion-free zones where religious indoctrination does not occur.

Parental Guidance

When I put myself in the shoes of a religious parent, I am confident that I would object to public school teachers, staff, and administrators exposing my child to religious dogma. I would likely feel this way even if the school personnel had similar religious views. I would understand that religious teaching is not what public school is for, and I would want my child to receive that sort of teaching at the church, synagog, mosque, or temple of my choosing.

This will strike some readers as farfetched, but I know quite a few Christians, including Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons, who would be horrified to discover that their children were being exposed to any sort of Christianity at their public schools. I know Christians who have moved churches multiple times because they did not care for particular ministers. A big part of why they did this was their concern for the messages to which their children were being exposed. I cannot imagine them wanting their children to get religion from assorted public school teachers.

For me personally, the separation of church and state is sufficiently important that I do not need to go looking for other reasons to oppose teacher-led prayer in public schools. I realize that this will not be the case for some people, including some atheists. Fortunately, there are at least a few other good reasons like those I have presented here.