For most schools around the US, we are in the middle of Summer Vacation, but for some reason this has recently become a hot topic. So, I figured I might as well address it now, rather than later.
Many people are under the belief that Prayer has been banned in schools. This is, in fact, not quite accurate. School or Teacher led prayers are not permitted in Public Schools, but prayer itself is not under a ban. In fact students have the right to pray all they wish, many sports teams have prayers in the locker room before going out on the field, and even many school run "groups" allow prayer. It is in fact something that most students will face at one time or another in their education.
But does it have a place? Should we ban it all together? And how does it affect those who participate? Or those that don't?
Well, simply put, banning prayer altogether would be impossible! That's like banning faith among school students, you can't ban someone's inner thoughts. So what schools have done is not banned prayer as a whole, but banned SCHOOL LEAD prayers. Today only, Christian or other Religiously run schools have prayers BUT, at one point Public Schools did as well. Many of you may have even been present for such activities. I was not in school, prior to this ban on prayer, and in fact my parents weren't even born, but it was common when my grandparents were in school.
Prayer was in fact something which was widely seen as a benefit for students at one point. However, in the early 1900's the issue became one which began to gather steam. Through the 18th, 19th and early 20th century it was common practice for public schools to open with a prayer or even a Bible reading. And as you can guess, religious minorities would object, but as they were in fact the minority they were greatly ignored. That is, they were ignored until 1962 & 63 which was two landmark cases that put an end to school or state sponsored prayers. The Engel v. Vitale (1962) and the Abington school District v. Schempp (1963) established the current ban on prayer in schools. However, it wasn't until 1971's Lemon v Kurtzman that the court system established the "Lemon Test" which gives both schools and courts a guideline on what is and isn't permitted.
This "Lemon Test" states that in order to be constitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment any practice sponsored within state run schools or any other state run activities must meet three criteria.
- Have a clearly secular purpose
- Must neaither adcance nor inhibit religion
- Must not result in an excessive entanglement between government and religion
But aren't there benefits to prayer? Well, yes, some studies have shown that prayer in times of stress, including Midterms, has been proven to help participants focus and remain clear headed. It's also been shown to increase the confidence of those who have strong beliefs in prayer. Both of these are in fact positive aspects. HOWEVER, these studies were done on participants who were praying in silence, not during public or led prayers.
What's the difference? Well, silent prayer takes concentration and focus, public or led prayers in fact do not. So is it the prayer it self which gives us the positive responses or is it the ability to take a moment, focus and concentrate on something positive? It seems to be the focus and concentration more than anything else, and I say this because similar studies have shown that silent affirmations and meditation have similar affects to silent prayer. Since openly led prayers do not require the same level of concentration or focus, and in fact can inhibit it, they simply don't have the same benefits.
But, really, who does School led prayer hurt? Well, more than you may think. Many of us simply think, well, you can always just ignore it. And sure, you can ignore it, or you can leave the room. But when we are talking about young children being different in a way like that can often lead to bullying or "shunning" by fellow students. It also has the ability to stop one from creating that positive focus that I mentioned with the silent prayer, which can result in lower grades.
So why is this such a hot topic? I mean, it was settled by the courts in the 60's right? Well, not quite. Recently there has been more and more of a movement to reinstate state-sponsored prayer, including school prayers. In response numerous schools have allowed for a "moment of silence" to allow students to pray silently should they choose to. Personally, I find this to be a wonderful compromise!
Since the early 90's the courts have been flooded by lawsuits and movements trying to once again reinstate a led prayer however. Many controversies revolve around prayer at extracurricular activities, graduations and outings rather than actually in class prayers. But as I see it, one step will lead to more and once again open the door for bible reading and openly stated prayers before class.
There have been roomers of courts which have ruled in favor of student said prayers during graduation, I have yet to find one which is credible. But, in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe in 2000, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling invalidating prayers conducted over the PA system prior to games and other activities.
Since it would be impossible for a school system to serve the interests of each and every students religious needs, it's truly best for them to simply stay out of it. If your local schools start to bring up the subject, or rather other parents, it's important to make the point that just while Christian parents would not want their children subjected to Pagan, Jewish, Islamic or whatever other religious groups prayers or chants, students who belong to those other groups shouldn't be subjected to Christian prayers. While the majority of proponents for school prayers are largely Christian, there are in fact those who are not, in which case the argument may need tweaked.
What it comes down to is Public schools serve the masses, Religion does not. Schools and other Public establishments need to remain religiously neutral in order to best serve all those involved. Should you choose to encourage your children to meditate, pray or whatever while in school, it CAN help their performance and allow them to access some benefits. BUT, this should be something that remains individual and silent so as to not inhibit the beliefs or practices of someone elses child.