Few issues have been more contentious than the debate surrounding prayer and Bible reading in public schools. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that teacher led prayer was unconstitutional, conservative Christians began to shout “God has been removed from the classroom,” and “children should be allowed to pray.” Never mind how puny this makes God seem, as long as there are algebra tests, there will be prayer in school.
Two factors have made the problem more of a problem than it ever needed to be. The first is lawsuit-shy school administrators. Educators have bent over backwards trying to follow what they thought was the law. Unfortunately, in some cases, they went too far and actually infringed the First Amendment rights of some students.
The other factor is religious leaders who have used the religion-in-public-schools issue as leverage to frighten parents and raise money for their organizations. Their error has been to completely overlook what the law says children can do in terms of religious expression. Whether this omission is deliberate or simply a failure to understand the issue I will leave between them and God.
Fortunately, in my state, the Alabama Education Association is doing something creative and positive about this situation. AEA is making available to school districts across the state an informative and helpful booklet entitled “The Bible and Public Schools.”
This resource is a collaborative effort between the First Amendment Center and the Bible Literacy Project. The 20-page pamphlet describes in clear detail what can and cannot be done with regard to religious activities.
For instance, the booklet makes it plain that teachers and administrators are not to lead religious activities. The courts have ruled consistently that when school officials read the Bible aloud to students or recite prayers, then the school is endorsing a particular religion. The Establishment Clause prohibits the state from practicing religion.
However students, as individual persons, are not bound by the Establishment Clause. On the contrary, they are protected by the Free Exercise clause.
According to the AEA booklet, “Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive…Students enjoy the right to read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray before tests, and discuss religion with other willing student listeners.”
What cannot be done, and should not be done, is for students to force their faith on others. They are also prohibited from using their faith in a manner that subverts the teaching process.
“In the classroom students have the right to pray quietly except when required to be actively engaged in school activities. For instance, students may not decide to pray just as the teacher calls on them. In informal settings, such as the cafeteria or in the halls, students may pray either audibly or silently, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other speech in these locations.”
And there is a lot more. Parents and religious leaders will be surprised to find just how spirit-filled the school day can be. And educators will be relieved to finally have stated in plain language exactly what the law does and does not allow. Maybe at long last we can put an end to the pointless wrangling over whether or not children can pray in school. After all, as long as there are algebra tests…well, you get the point.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.