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A Debate Over Prayers in Public Schools

Updated on February 21, 2010

A Debate on Prayers in Public Schools

Did the U.S. Supreme Court go too far in cracking down on religion in public domain? – (An imaginary discussion between a high school civics teacher and his 82-year-old uncle in a high school classroom in 2009) By Michael M. Nakade

Teacher: Good morning, class. Today, you people get to watch a discussion between my uncle Ed and I, over several landmark cases involving prayer in public schools. You’ll listen to both sides of an argument and come up with your own opinion regarding several Supreme Court’s decisions. Okay. Here’s my Uncle Ed. (Applause)

Uncle Ed: Thank you. I accepted my nephew’s invitation to come here today because I wanted to know what young people think of Supreme Court decisions regarding prayer in public schools. I am genuinely worried that America is becoming too secular. For this, I blamed our Supreme Court. Those justices eliminated prayer from public school classrooms, from Friday night football games, and from graduation ceremony. I suggest that students in public schools be allowed to start each day with a prayer or a moment of silence. This will restore the sense of morality and decency to our culture.

Teacher: Regarding prayer in public schools, Uncle Ed is referring to two court cases in the early 1960s. The first one is Engel v. Vital, and the second one is Abington Township School District v. Schemp. In both cases, the Supreme Court struck down prayer and acts of religious devotion in public school classrooms.

Uncle Ed: I don’t understand why prayers are so offensive these days. We, as a nation, pray together all these years. When I fought in World War II, I often went to my Chaplin before the battle so that we could pray together. He worked for the government and was getting paid by the government for his religious work. Nobody ever brought up the principle of separation of church and state regarding prayer in the Armed forces. I think it will be good for students and teachers to start a day with a prayer at schools.

Teacher: Uncle Ed, with all due respect, you were fighting a war. You deserved a pastoral care and counseling service. Today in the field of education, prayer in school is considered by many to be intrusive. People who complained about it were not against religion or a prayer. They just believed that school is a wrong place to pray. After all, public schools receive everyone’s tax dollar. Governments at any level cannot favor one religion over the others. Prayers often involve reference to a god of one particular religion.

Uncle Ed: I never said that a prayer has to be an explicit Christian prayer. It’s a non- denominational prayer in which students thank the Almighty and pledge to do their best on that day. Denouncing this type of prayer because of the principle of The First Amendment is ridiculous to me.

Teacher: Well, the Abington Township School District case was also about explicit Christian scriptural readings. If teachers in the classroom do it, they are promoting the Christian religion at the expense of other religions. That’s a no-no according to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Uncle Ed: The Lord’s Prayer, for example, is not a Christian prayer. It’s a standardized prayer for everyone, and it is an important part of our American spiritual tradition. Although the First Amendment says that Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, it doesn’t mean that kids in public schools can’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. It’s not like the government is creating a state religion here just because kids in school recite the Lord’s Prayer.

Teacher: The Constitution is a living document. Judges are expected to interpret our laws according to changes that time brings. When the Founding Fathers adopted the Constitution, they did not want to establish an official state sponsored church like England did with the Church of England. But today, the First Amendment is understood to protect the rights of minorities. I don’t want a lone Jewish student or a lone Muslim student in my class to feel left out if I lead the Bible recitation in my class. America is a diverse nation today. The First Amendment is here to protect everyone’s rights.

Uncle Ed: How about some teachers and students get together and pray at school campus on a voluntary basis? If some students do not want to participate, they won’t be bothered. It will be strictly voluntary. Will the Supreme Court honor the Free Exercise of Religion Clause? I bet those justices won’t allowed it because they hate religion.

Teacher: Uncle Ed, you’re getting a bit too personal here. The case called Wallace v. Jaffree in 1985 dealt with the issue of voluntary silent prayer and the recitation of an official Alabama State prayer in public schools. The Supreme Court struck down the organized prayer on public schools because such a religious activity was usually motivated by religious sentiment. Those justices are not against a religiously inspired prayer. Rather, they think an organized prayer should happen at home or at a church or a synagogue or a temple. But, you are right about the freedom of religion. Public school students can go somewhere quiet on school campus and can pray to their god during their free time. But, a teacher cannot lead a group of students and pray together in an organized way. That will be seen as state’s official endorsement of teacher’s personal faith.

Uncle Ed: Oh, c’mon. That sounds like nitpicking. I think it’s sad that a well-meaning teacher cannot pray together with students on campus when it is appropriate. For example, one student gets killed in a car accident, and other students are in need of spiritual comfort. The Supreme Court’s prohibition of a prayer led by a teacher is ridiculous.

Teacher: In today’s school culture, we go to grief counselors when students are traumatized. In other words, psychologists would take care of students’ emotional matters.

Uncle Ed: Oh I see. Religion is being phased out altogether. Now, psychology does what religion used to do. Educators are promoting psychology, I guess. What about the Supreme Court forbidding prayers by students at Friday night football games? I think some justices are paranoid about prayers. What’s wrong with students praying to the Almighty before their games so that nobody gets hurt? And one more thing. This shocked me more than anything. The Court cracked down on clergies from giving invocations at high school graduations. Is religion so bad that we should not see, hear, and smell it in public any more? The Supreme Court went way too far in banning invocation at a graduation ceremony.

Teacher: The football prayer case is Santa Fe School District v. Doe, and the graduation prayer case is Lee v. Weisman. Both cases are fairly recent, and Uncle Ed is not the only one who felt these two cases were too much. The public opinion in both cases went against justices who voted to ban those organized prayers in public property.

Uncle Ed: Then, will you tell me why the Court decided to ban these traditions? Prayers are not hurting anyone, aren’t they? In both cases, people in the stadium recognize the importance of the occasion and pray together to ask for blessings upon students. Football is a rough game. We all want our young athletes to remain healthy. And, graduations are happy occasions, and we express our gratitude and ask for a continued blessing upon the graduates. It’s a good tradition. It has nothing to do with the state’s favoring of one religion over other religions. If there are atheists in the crowd, they don’t have to stand up and pray. They can remain seated and just ignore it while the prayer is taking place. It is silly to think that we ban our tradition so that a few atheists don’t get offended.

Teacher: Uncle Ed has a point here. One of the dissenting justices on the graduation prayer case said the same thing. Let me quote Justice Scalia’s words: “To deprive our society of that important unifying mechanism in order to spare the nonbeliever the minimal inconvenience of standing, or sitting in nonparticipation, is senseless.” So, yes, this decision in particular was not very popular with the public. But, another justice offered a different take on this issue and said this: “students were subjected to ‘coercion’ and ‘peer pressure’ by having to choose between attending their graduations and hearing prayers or staying in away from these ceremonies if they objected.” It was Justice Kennedy who said it, by the way. His point is that religion is often divisive among school age children. Bringing prayer to a public school environment may lead to singling out a student whose faith is different from the majority of kids at the school. The heart of the Bill of Rights is to safeguard the rights of the minority from potential coercive actions from the majority. Kids who belong to a Jehovah’s Witness group or a Mormon group in some parts of the country have suffered in the past. That’s why it’s altogether prudent to remove prayer from public schools.

Uncle Ed: I am sick of this ‘protecting the rights of minority’ stuff. What about the majority’s wishes? Isn’t America a democratic country? Isn’t this a free country where the wishes of the majority will be reflected in government policies? Nowadays, the Supreme Court is only thinking about potential hurt feelings of a small minority group, instead of giving what the majority wants. This is bogus.

Teacher: Well, Uncle Ed. What if you imagine yourself being an exchange student at a high school in Saudi Arabia? That’s a country where everyone is officially Muslim. You just may be the only Non-Muslim in the entire school. I bet you’ll feel coerced everyday. Your right to exercise your faith won’t be respected at all. But, let me tell you one Supreme Court case that you will actually like. It dealt with the city government’s Christmas display, Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984.

Uncle Ed: Oh yeah. I remember the case. Some liberal religion haters got offended during the holiday season because they noticed a nativity scene set up by the city government somewhere in the east coast. They sued to have the nativity scene removed.

Teacher: At first, they won. But the city’s mayor was offended by the decision and appealed. The Supreme Court made its ruling in favor of the mayor. So, the nativity scene got to stay put.

Uncle Ed: Sometimes, those justices do have common sense. But it irritates me that someone sued the city government over something like this. What a waste of the city’s tax dollar! Money could have been spent on making the city safer or something more beneficial, instead of hiring lawyers to win the silly case.

Teacher: For this case in particular, the justices felt that the nativity scene wasn’t that religious because it was a part of a larger holiday display. You know, there were statues of Santa Claus and reindeers next to the nativity scene. The justices felt that Christmas was more of a national holiday than a religious holiday. The nativity scene decoration could be tolerated as a part of a national holiday celebration. So, in conclusion, their message to the plaintiff was: Don’t get bent out of shape over this nativity scene.

Uncle Ed: I like the expression, ‘Don’t get bent out of shape.’ I think there are way too many liberals out there who get bent out of shape over religion in public domains. I say, “Chill” to those guys. Religion in general is a good thing. It brings morality. Kids benefit from prayer and scripture readings at schools. I don’t think they coerce each other over their differences in religion.

Teacher: Uncle Ed. I half agree with you, but half disagree with you. It is true that the principle of separation of church and state is blown up a bit these days. But, prayer in schools can easily turn into sectarianism. When prayers are done in the name of Jesus Christ at public schools, they are violating the First Amendment. I suggest that religious education should take place at home and at churches. Public schools just aren’t the right place. That’s the bottom line.

Okay, students. Break up into groups of five and discuss which side of the argument you prefer and explain why as a group.

(The Teaching Company’s Lecture Series on The History of the Supreme Court, lecture 34, “Prayer and Abortion Return to the Court,” by Peter Irons, 2003 provided historical information for the dialogue above.)


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    • Mikio profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      You're absolutely right. There have been so much 'confusions' over the true meaning of the First Amendment. That's probably why we have so many court cases in our history.

    • profile image

      Randy Williams 

      7 years ago

      What I think is no one in this debate knows what the first amendment says. The first amendment was written to protect the Jewish-Christain church but, the courts ruled that a religion is, any belief that a person hold as a religion. So the public school system is illegal and unconstitutional. The first amendment says; congress shall make no laws establishing a religion or probibiting the free exercise thereof. Wow public schools do both, they establish a religion and prohibit the free exercise of another. That sounds wrong to me but, the first amendment also says, that the churches have a right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. Everone quotes the first amendment but, I guess no one knows what it says.


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