Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Just say no to "school prayer"

Now that I have your attention, let me explain.

I've seen a lot of posts and memes going around that blame the rise in gun violence in our schools and the overall declining state of our schools on the removal of "school prayer."  To be clear, "school prayer" here refers to a verbal, communal, mandatory prayer led by the teacher or administration to open the school day, either in person in the classroom or over the intercom system.  In the past, this time has included a scripture reading as well as prayer.

It's this form of prayer in schools that I am staunchly opposed to, for a multitude of reasons.

It's unconstitutional - Between Engel v. Vitale (1962), Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), and Murray v. Curlett (1963) the Supreme Court has thoroughly established official state-school prayer, state-school Bible readings, and other public school-sponsored religious activities violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...").   It's important to note that First Amendment religious cases are a balancing act.  It's a weighing of the prohibition against the establishment of religion and the free exercise of religion.  That is why we have the Lemon test to evaluate religious First Amendment questions.  The Lemon test has three parts: 1) there must be a secular purpose, 2) the primary effect must not advance or inhibit religion, and 3) it must not result in "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

The use of school prayer as previously outlined clearly represented a preference in the public schools for one particular form of religion with a purely religious purpose. The prayers at issue are always Christian and most often Protestant.  They provide no opportunity for the exercise of an individual's particular religious freedom.  Put another way, there is not an opt-out option for an individual student or faculty member.

It's inherently problematic - Even setting aside Constitutional issues, school prayer is fraught with problems.  How do you decide what kind of prayer should be permitted?  If the school population is predominantly Baptist, but the principal who is praying over the intercom is Catholic, is it a problem if he invokes the Blessed Virgin Mary?  Could someone Jewish pray, though he would not invoke Jesus Christ?  How about a Mormon? Or a Muslim invoking Allah?

Do you let someone truly pray out their faith?  Or must it be watered down to the lowest common denominator of belief?  Is there a right way to pray, and conversely, a wrong way to pray?

How do you deal with people of different faiths?  Or with atheists or agnostics in the school?  Do you allow for any accommodations?

In the public school system which takes all students and can often have a very diverse population, these issues outline how difficult even broaching the subject can be.

It's potentially un-biblical - Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.  Matthew 6:1 (NASB)

When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men.  Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.  Matthew 6:5-6 (NASB)

Now Jesus in this passage is focusing on motivation, on the heart issue, which is at so much of his ministry.  Getting the religious to look beyond the "right" actions and look inward to the right motivations and the correct spirit. This is not a prohibition on all public prayer or group prayer, as it would depend on the motivation and effect there. We can see this play out in different scenarios.  For instance, prayer over a worship service serves a different purpose than prayer over a football game.  For one, the congregants in a worship service come with the understanding of religious activities and practice during the worship time.  Observers of a football game may not be expecting or agreed to it.   Further, what Christ is saying is that even during a worship service, a person's public prayer may be hypocritical.  That person's motivation may be to elevate themselves as a speaker, to show how "religious" they are, etc.  That prayer does not serve its intended purpose.  Conversely, the prayer at a game may be the most humble and faithful action a person could undertake.  But is it something that needs be voiced to everyone in attendance?

To me, that raises the question regarding why school prayer need be mandatory, participatory, or audible.  What is the goal with such a prayer in the school?  Who is it designed to glorify?  And is there a more effective alternative?

Returning to the posts and memes, the rationale given for why our schools are currently deteriorating is that God is either banned from entering the schools or that He is a gentleman and refuses to enter given the removal of school prayer (condensed, but essentially).  Both are inherently flawed.  First, it is impossible to ban an omnipresent God from anywhere. The second assumption ignores the way God operates.  Yes, we have evidence of God turning an unrepentant people over to themselves.  But this viewpoint also requires us to assume that God will abandon His faithful and not be with the believers that continue to roam the halls of public schools across this nation.

I do not believe that God is angered by a secular government stopping school prayer as defined here; after all Jesus did not rail against Caesar, but instead against the leading Jews of the time.  I do imagine God will be far angrier at his followers who abrogated their responsibilities when the easy path was removed.  Against those whose only acknowledgment of their faith on school property was the daily mandatory prayer.

In reality, prayer is still perfectly acceptable in school.  Prayer that is personal and voluntary, a reflection of the individual student or faculty members personal faith.  That reflects that deep and personal communication with our Lord and Savior.  Prayer that can be exercised as needed.

Imagine if that kind of prayer took hold in our schools.  Imagine a school where the principal arrived at school early every day to walk the halls and pray over the coming day before anyone else ever arrived.  Imagine a school where every believing teacher arrived to close themselves off in their room to pray for each class as the day starts, naming students by name and praying for their days.  Imagine a school where every believing student arrived and said a quick silent prayer at their locker for the day and their fellow students.  Or where believing students gathered at the pole every day to start each school day with prayer.

Imagine how the schools would be used for God's purpose.

And here's the great part - there is nothing to stop this from happening right now outside the choices of God's people.  This form is perfectly Constitutional and has been repeatedly upheld as such.

I know there are many teachers, faculty, and students that do this every day.  To the teachers and faculty, thank you for your faithfulness and dedication to a true calling on your life placed by God.  To the students, thank you for your example, for being willing to be salt and light to your peers.

If you are not, I pray you would consider doing so.  And I would pray that all of us, in whatever profession or setting we find ourselves in are doing the same.  There is no need to limit this to the schoolhouse.  We should be bathing our days in prayer regardless of our surroundings.  I know I need to be better at this.  For this is the start of how we change the world - through prayer and supplication to the one who holds it in His hands.

and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  2 Chronicles 7:14 (NASB)

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