Prayer in School: Should we reinstate classroom prayers?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Prayer in School
Praying Young Man in Stained Glass Window

TEACHING THE YOUNG TO PRAY? For centuries in the West, teaching young men and women Christian prayer was a widespread goal of educational institutions. Change came only after legal challenges from religious minorities, reminding American leaders of the nation’s growing religious diversity.

Were you required to participate in school prayers? If you’re old enough, and lived in certain areas of the country, you might have. It used to be standard practice.

Public school administrators nationwide know that officially sponsored prayers (or other officially organized religious practices) are considered unconstitutional. The U.S. Department of Education maintains an online overview of the rules, which haven’t changed in decades. The current web version of the rules was posted in 2003, back when George W. Bush was president.

Still, a new Gallup poll is sparking fresh debate nationwide, raising the question: Could a case be made for prayer in schools? In recent days, commentators in conservative publications like the Washington Times have cited the Gallup report as fresh food for thought.

WHAT GALLUP FOUND: About six of ten Americans (61%) support allowing daily prayers to be spoken aloud in the classroom, according to the new poll. This actually represents a gradual decline in support for school prayer. In 1999, 70% of Americans supported the practice. Support was 68% in 2000, and 66% in early 2001.

Protestants are much more likely than Catholics to support daily prayer in the classroom, according to Gallup. Today, more than three of four Protestants (77%) favor the practice, compared to 57% of Catholics. Only a third (35%) of Americans with no religious preference support daily prayers in the classroom.

Not surprisingly, Americans who attend church every week are much more likely to support daily prayers in school. Over eight of ten (82%) frequent church goers support school prayer. Among those who seldom go to church, 49% are in favor of daily prayers at school.

Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to support the practice of daily school prayers. Eight of ten (80%) Republicans would allow it, compared to 45% of Democrats.

While officially sanctioned prayers are banned, students can still pray if they want to. The prayers just can’t be officially authorized or sponsored, and the practice cannot disrupt other students from doing their work.

Did you participate in officially sponsored prayers at school?
Would it be beneficial to reinstate school prayers?
Are there certain circumstances in which you would allow prayers at school?

Prayer in School: How about graduation ceremonies?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Prayer in School
High School graduation ceremony

DOES THE SIZE OF THE CLASS MATTER? The towns where legal questions arise over graduation prayer tend to be smaller and school officials assume “everyone” shares the same faith. But many high school classes across the U.S. are as big as this one, graduating in a huge arena. Diversity is more obvious. What’s your experience in big or small schools?

Officially sponsored prayers are banned in public schools. Such prayers violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But how far does this ban go?

Does it include prayers at graduation ceremonies?

The vast majority of Americans (75%) favor allowing students to say prayers at graduation ceremonies as part of the official program, according to a new Gallup poll. Americans who frequently attend church are more likely to support the practice, compared to those who don’t. But even 62% of those who seldom attend church support it.

Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say that students should be allowed to say a prayer at graduation ceremonies. Still, a majority of Democrats (65%) also support the practice.

Public opinion is one thing, the law is something else. Just because a majority of Americans favor a practice doesn’t make it constitutional. Here’s what the U.S. Department of Education has to say about this particular practice:

School officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation or select speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech such as prayer. Where students or other private graduation speakers are selected on the basis of genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria and retain primary control over the content of their expression, however, that expression is not attributable to the school and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content. To avoid any mistaken perception that a school endorses student or other private speech that is not in fact attributable to the school, school officials may make appropriate, neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech (whether religious or nonreligious) is the speaker’s and not the school’s.

Thus, a student speaker would be allowed to say a prayer at graduation ceremonies if the speaker was selected on a neutral and impartial basis and retained control over the content of what was said. This neutrality policy would also allow an atheist or agnostic to speak at graduation ceremonies.

What’s your opinion about prayers at graduation ceremonies?
Should they be allowed?
Or, should prayers at graduation ceremonies be strictly prohibited?

Prayer in School: Can a student write a term paper about prayer?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Prayer in School
College classroom photo by Elly Koepf for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

College classroom photo by Elly Koepf for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Officially sanctioned prayers are banned in public schools, including any religious expression in classrooms or graduation ceremonies led by school employees.

But what if a student wants to write about prayer or God in a class assignment? Is this allowable?

I once faced this situation. I teach in a public institution of higher education and so the ban on officially sanctioned religious expression obviously applies. But I had a business-school student ask me if it was okay to write about “God as a business partner” to fulfill a class assignment for a term paper. For example, in some banks, loan officers routinely pray with their clients for good terms on pending mortgage applications. Some companies incorporate religious principles into their business models. Chick-fil-A restaurants, for example, are closed on Sundays.

The student’s proposal might seem like a gray area, but the Department of Education is clear about the answer. Suppose, for example, that an English teacher gives an assignment to write a poem and a student writes a sonnet about prayer. This poem “should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.”

Students are free to “express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.” The instructor should judge the product solely on “the basis of academic standards.” It cannot be “penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious content.”

I confess that I didn’t then know all the details of the DOE guidelines, but it was apparent to me at the time that it would be fine for the student to write a term paper about God as a business partner.

Have you faced a similar situation?

Do you agree with DOE’s policy on the expression of religious beliefs in class assignments?

Prayer in School: See you at the pole?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Prayer in School
See You at the Pole at a Middle School

A See You at the Pole event at a middle school. While these events are “student initiated and student led,” they often involve adults as well—as in this case. Photo provided for public use via Wikimedia Commons by “TCWikieditor.”

“See you at the pole” is a student-initiated gathering of Christian students who meet at the schoolyard flagpole before the school day to pray and worship. Starting in 1990, it is now an annual event here and abroad.

Is this use of school property constitutional?

“See you at the pole” (SYATP) started as a small gathering in Texas. It grew into a global event. An estimated 1 million students in the U.S. participate, with see-you-at-the-pole events in many other countries. The SYATP website emphasizes that the event is “student-initiated, student-organized, and student-led”—a key to the constitutionality of the gathering.

Traditionally, a day in September is designated for the event. This year, it was September 24. A somewhat recent shift has been from a single day to a week of prayerful activities. The “Global Week of Student Prayer” this year took place from Sunday, September 21 through Saturday, September 27, 2014.

These events are permissible, and in their official capacities, school officials cannot discourage or encourage participation. The U.S. Department of Education explicitly addresses SYATP, stating that students may organize such events before school “to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular student activities groups.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also weighed in, and you can read their opinion here.)

Do “See You at the Pole” events take place in your local schools?

Do you know someone who participated?

Do you support such activities?

Prayer in School: What happens in a ‘Moment of Silence’?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Prayer in School
A MOMENT OF SILENCE often is used among men and women in public service as a way to honor the fallen. This photo from the USS Kearsarge, serving in the Persian Gulf, shows the ship’s personnel pausing in an annual moment of silence to remember victims of the “9/11” attacks. (Photo by U.S. Navy’s Ash Severe, released for public use.)

A MOMENT OF SILENCE often is used by men and women in public service as a way to honor the fallen. This photo from the USS Kearsarge, serving in the Persian Gulf, shows the ship’s personnel pausing in an annual moment of silence to remember victims of the “9/11” attacks. (Photo by U.S. Navy’s Ash Severe, released for public use.)

Have you participated in a Moment of Silence? Often, Moments of Silence are expressions of remembrance and respect for those who have died or used to commemorate a tragedy. These are common occurrences in schools.

If a student cares to pray during a Moment of Silence, is it permissible?

This week, we’ve considered various angles on what is still a contentious issue in America: prayers in school. As a new Pew survey reports, a majority of Americans still support prayers in school. We’ve considered prayers at graduation ceremonies, writing about prayers or other religious themes in a term paper, and “See You at the Pole” prayer events.

Today, we consider the Moment of Silence. The theme this week is neutrality. School officials cannot officially encourage or discourage religious expression at schools. If students—on their own—choose to pray, they can do so as an expression of religious freedom.

The Moment of Silence is one of many issues covered the Department of Education’s guidelines. These guidelines state:

“If a school has a ‘minute of silence’ or other quiet periods during the school day, students are free to pray silently, or not to pray, during these periods of time. Teachers and other school employees may neither encourage nor discourage students from praying during such time periods.”

Back in the 1990s, Colin Powell, who was thinking about running for the White House, famously said that he didn’t favor prayer in public schools but he did favor a Moment of Silence.

Critics of the Moment of Silence contend that it is just a sneaky way to slip prayers into the school day.

So, what do you think happens in a Moment of Silence?
Have you participated in one?
If so, did you pray?