Every year of high school I met with my fellow Christian classmates and friends during the designated Wednesday in September.
We met to pray for our country. We met to pray for our school. We met to pray for each other. We met to prove that the First Amendment still gave us the right to profess our faith, even if a Supreme Court decision said we could not have school-wide corporate prayer.
Most of my K-8 education took place in Christian schools, so when I started my freshman year at a public high school, I got a crash course in what was and was not allowed in school as it related to openly practicing my Christian faith.
In my years since high school, I have seen a lot of misinterpretations of the laws on religion in public schools, so first we need to clear up some of the confusion. The First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the establishment of religion by the government and allows for the free practice of any religion of a citizen’s choice (as long as the free practice does not break any other laws). That means that public school teachers cannot openly promote or practice a specific religion in their classes.
Teachers ARE free to neutrally discuss a variety of religions (as is necessary in nearly every humanities class). They are also allowed to discuss their faith in a non-instructional setting—such as when they are advising an extracurricular activity like Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But even with extra-curriculars, public school teachers are advised to walk a fine line. Discussing one’s faith is allowed. Actively trying to convert a student is not.
However, this distinction never stopped me from sharing my faith with high school classmates. I was never forced to deny my Christianity. And while I developed friendships with classmates who agreed and disagreed with me regarding the most basic tenets of the Christian faith, I never felt oppressed because I couldn’t pray with my classmates at the beginning of each class period.
If anything, it probably saved me from the discomfort of forced interfaith interaction with classmates who fell on all points of the religious spectrum.
When the Supreme Court decided that the non-establishment clause meant schools could no longer sponsor prayer, many Christians started defending the need for school prayer, eventually claiming that this particular Supreme Court decision was the beginning of the decline of morality in the United States.
Behind the desire to bring prayer back into schools is the mistaken belief that active prayer will bring people back to a Judeo-Christian set of morals. It also operates under the belief that the United States, at her core, is a Christian nation. But the reality is the United States is a nation of many beliefs and many degrees of those varying beliefs.
One doesn’t have to be a Christian to have an active prayer life—something that my fellow Christians need to remember. I believe Christians should be opposed to state-sponsored prayer. Why? Because when you pray alongside someone who believes in different gods or entities, you’re implicitly acknowledging and elevating the gods they believe in. This doesn’t fit with the Christian belief that there is one God who deserves all our prayer and worship. And while this may not be true for all religions, Christianity is probably not the only religion that sees prayer this way.
Furthermore, the desire to bring back prayer operates under the belief that just because a person prays, he or she is an inherently moral individual. As a high school student, I saw some of the most vocal “prayers” prove to be the hypocrites that our non-Christian classmates accused us Christians of being. I also saw some of the least religious students being the kindest and most honest. That continues into adulthood—I hang my head in shame when I see what some of my Christian friends post on social media in comparison to my other friends. By Christian standards, a praying life should equal a moral life, but the reality is up for debate.
Do we have issues in schools today? Yes. But to varying degrees, bullying, disrespect, sex, drinking, and drug use have been a part of the school experience for hundreds of years. As a fifteen-year Christian educator, I can say that these problems are present even amongst my primarily Christian teenage students. And I would argue that these things are not going to go away with the simple act of praying before the start of the school day.
As a Christian, I believe prayer is powerful and essential to growing and developing my relationship with Jesus. But I cannot, and should not, force others to pray with me. To do so is dishonest and counterproductive to enacting real change. If individuals of all faiths (or no faith) want to make a difference in the moral fabric of schools, it is time to move away from half-hearted attempts at primarily Judeo-Christian faith practices.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on education from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.