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School Prayer and the Separation of Church and State: The Conflict That Keeps On Giving
School prayer…what a mess! Our nation has been fighting over this issue ever since the 1960s when the Supreme Court ruled that school prayer along with school Bible reading, teachers discussing religious topics, and posting the Ten Commandments are unconstitutional.
Why was school prayer removed? We’re told the reason is that...
America is a nation founded on the principle of the separation of church and state. As a pluralistic nation, we respect all religious beliefs and would not want someone else’s beliefs imposed upon us. Therefore, it’s wrong for us to impose our beliefs on others. This especially applies to children. We should not impose upon them the external rituals of religion like organized prayer: faith should be something natural that comes from the heart and not a dry, legalistic, formalistic prayer. Therefore, public prayer has been banned from schools.
While the above mantra might sound plausible to some, it’s mistaken. This essay is dedicated to countering the argument that prayer should be banned from our nation’s schools.
The Separation of Church and State
First, the separation of church and state. The separation of church and state has been an important feature of the American experience. Many Americans throughout history and some foreigners, like Alexis de Tocqueville, have remarked on the distinction between church and state and how it has been important in American history. But what does “separation of church and state mean”?
A “church” and the “state” are institutions, so to “separate” church and state is to maintain a clear distinction between institutions. “Separation of church and state” would imply that the leadership and finances of the two institutions should be kept distinct. When it comes to finances, the state should not pay a tithe to the church and the church should not pay a tax to the state.
However, “separation of church and state” does not mean the separation of religion and politics. To bar religious ideas from the public square is to discriminate based on religion. For example, some anti-religious groups have tried to ban an abstinence-based sex-education curriculum from public schools because the idea is “religiously-based.” But what is awkward for religion-bashers is that the concept of the separation of church and state is a Christian idea. The late political theorist, George Sabine, had this to say about the separation of church and state:
The rise of the Christian church, as a distinct institution entitled to govern the spiritual concerns of mankind in independence of the state, many not unreasonably be described as the most revolutionary event in the history of western Europe, in respect both to politics and to political philosophy …Christianity raised a problem which the ancient world had not known—the problem of church and state—and implied a diversity of loyalties and an internality of judgment not included in the ancient idea of citizenship…
So, the distinction between church and state was initially a Christian idea, not a secular one. Furthermore, when we are separating church and state, we are separating institutions, not practices. The finances, bylaws, the leadership should be kept separate. As for religion and politics, they are inseparable.
Second, let’s look at the belief that we are to respect all religions. This is probably the most ridiculous of all the statements. We do not respect all religions. Some religions would demand the eradication of all other faiths except their own. Do we respect such beliefs? What about religions that demand polygamy or child sacrifice? Are we under obligation to permit, under the umbrella of religious free exercise, practices that are immoral?
Furthermore, it’s wrong to suppress the free exercise of religion in the schools over the fear that someone might be offended by a school prayer. In America, we don’t suppress the freedoms of others because someone might be offended by its exercise. It’s wrong to remove the Ten Commandments from the children’s view, wrong to cut the mike of a valedictorian address because she acknowledges God in public, and wrong to send school children to the administrator’s office because they did their school project on a religious theme.
One view of religious freedom prevails in our schools: It’s the view of the atheist who holds that no public exercise of religion should be allowed since he will be offended by it. Perhaps his opposition stems from having been made to participate in religion when he was younger. But whatever the source of his aversion, his disapproval should never have been allowed to become the policy of the many. He angrily protests that your views on religion should not be imposed upon him while he rubs your nose in his own.
Today, we are told that America should have a "freedom from religion." However, no one has a right not to hear or see something religious. All of us see and hear things that offend us everyday. A part of maturity is knowing how to handle that without throwing a tantrum about it.
What the atheist would have us to believe is that because there are variations of religious beliefs, all beliefs, except his, should be suppressed. But the rationale is childish. We suppress neither the freedom of speech nor the freedom of the press just because people have differing views on the subject.
The Value of a Ritual
A third reason for banning school prayer is that prayer is a religious ritual that children should be exposed to only when they are adults when they can make religious decisions for themselves.
The problem with this view is that we regularly expose children to our values and beliefs and sometimes we impose them. In fact, we have an ethical obligation to impose some values upon them. Should we allow children to make their own choices on whether they learn or not? Whether they choose to love or hate those outside their race? “Let’s let them decide for themselves whether or not they leave the scene of a hit-and-run accident of which they were the perpetrator.” You see the problem, don’t you? We do not and cannot wait to impose certain practices upon children. They must be taught and they must be taught now.
It is right to acknowledge God and be grateful to Him. Children should be taught how to express these ideas, even if they don’t fully understand them or mean them.
Yes, it’s true: children often don’t know what they’re saying when they’re praying. They often lack the depth of understanding to comprehend their actions in such matters. But, I reject the idea that a ritual prayer has no value in the life of a child. We have children do many things in which they lack the wisdom of perceiving their value. It’s silly to oppose prayer in schools on those grounds.
When I was in school in the late 60s, every morning we would stand in our class, say the Pledge of Allegiance, sing "My Country Tis of Thee" and pray the Lord's Prayer. That old teacher of mine apparently didn't know that her nation’s Supreme Court had earlier ruled that those rituals were unconstitutional or perhaps she did know, but just didn't care. After all, praying in school was constitutional for most of her adult life.
When we prayed the Lord's Prayer, we hardly knew what we were doing. But we knew enough to know that it was about God. We also didn't understand the significance of saying the Pledge or singing the song “My Country Tis of Thee,” but we knew enough to know that they were about America.
Some of my best memories from grade school are from those first grade rituals. I taught all my children that prayer, and today, when I pray it, it's no mere ritual. When I publicly pray it, I think about what I'm saying. Throughout my life, I have contemplated the meaning of the words. It's been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling spiritual experiences of my life.
A Conflict that Keeps on Giving
Today, most people think that the conflict over prayer in schools surrounds those that want to keep prayer out v. those that want prayer back in. But that’s not the real tension. The fault line exists because prayer, Bible reading, and the general acknowledgement of God were removed in the first place. It's been a divisive issue ever since that happened. And there is no way it will ever cease to be a controversy until the ban is lifted.
A good argument can be made that a government-created and sanctioned prayer is a mistake, that schools should not impose such prayers. But the people of this nation have the freedom to corporately pray in the schools if they so wish and the existing prohibition of that freedom is a violation of the free exercise of religion as stated in the First Amendment of the Constitution. This lunacy must stop.
It’s going to stop.
This is the United States of America, a nation predicated on the belief that men, women, and children have the freedom to worship God in their homes, as well as in the streets; in the school house as well as in the church house. The ban on prayer is unsustainable: the American people will not suffer it forever. Christians should take heart: some atheists have succeeded in imposing their narrow view of religion on our government and its schools. They have been successful in eliciting the help of the historically ignorant under misplaced metaphors like the “Wall of Separation.” They have convinced many of our citizens that their view of religion is to free American from religious oppression. But all they have given us is oppression. This imposition will not last forever.
If you enjoy controversy, you’ve embraced a winner, because this matter of prayer in schools will never go away so long as our children are treated as criminals for believing in God and exercising that belief in our nation’s schools.
 George Sabine, A History of Political Theory, Third Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.
© 2010 William R Bowen Jr