Is prayer in public schools really a good idea?


June 2000

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled by a 6-3 majority that public schools cannot allow student-led prayer before high school football games. That may not be a bad idea considering who might be praying:

The kid who always dresses in black: “Power of darkness, descend upon our team and possess them with power from below.”

The Iranian exchange student, “To the one and only God, Allah, may the satanic infidels who come against us feel Thy divine wrath and judgment.”

The charismatic kid: “Come out, foul spirits of fumbled balls and missed tackles! We rebuke the team who comes against us in the name of Jeeeeeeeeee-sus!”

And, the homecoming queen runner-up: “And God, I pray that Queen Stephanie is not pregnant, and that if she is, the DNA tests will reveal which member of the team is the father.”

It’s a complicated issue!

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens admitted, “We recognize the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions’ significance.”

However, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, accused the majority of “distorting existing precedent” to rule that the policy violated the First Amendment, which gives the freedom of speech.

“But even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the Court’s opinion; it bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life. Neither the holding nor the tone of the opinion is faithful to the meaning of the Establishment Clause,” Rehnquist wrote, noting that the nation’s first president, George Washington, himself had called for a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer.”

Rehnquist also pointed out that the Galveston, Texas, policy allowed students to discuss purely secular topics, not just prayer. The choice of topics and speakers was to be made by the students, not the school.

Prayer is important

The Apostle Paul writes to believers, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone–for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness (1 Timothy 2:1-2). If he were writing today, Paul would probably add “and for Supreme Court justices.”

I depend on prayer. Especially when I send my children off to public school, or it’s one hour from deadline and I have no clue what to write for my weekly column.

But prayer is also private

Jesus teaches, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:5-7).

Parents are still free to send their children off to school with prayer. Students are still free to pray aloud in groups on school property before and after hours and, especially, silently before tests. (If not for prayer, I would have never passed high school Latin. Mirable dictu!)

And, best of all, no one is going to broadcast over the school intercom, “And God, save the soul of that godless columnist who dares to suggest that public prayers at school assemblies may not be the best idea.”

Copyright © 2000 James N. Watkins

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