This is an article I originally posted in 2012, but the topic frequently comes up, not only in my teaching, but in media, and, well, just about everywhere. The idea that the Supreme Court, or government, or “them” (as Steve Martin said in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, “only they know who is them”), have somehow outlawed prayer in public schools is one of the most persistent, and wrong, narratives out there. The opening of the article referred to the then-recent Sandy Hook school attack, but the narrative has been used to explain a great many examples of supposed societal calamity since. I’ll make a few necessary changes as I go along to update things.
The murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut have renewed an old lament: God has been removed from the schools, and therefore, all manner of social and cultural chaos has occurred. It’s cause and effect, you see. For those who want to read the seminal case, it’s Engel v. Vitale (1962). The most recent doomsayer? Mike Huckabee, who said:
It’s an interesting thing, we ask why there’s violence in our schools but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we do not want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability. That we’re not just going to have to be accountable to the police, if they catch us, but we stand one day before a holy God in judgment.
The common knowledge that God has, somehow, been excised from school, would, upon careful reflection, seem to suggest that man has become more powerful than God, and capable of evicting Him. This is, of course, nonsense. What Mr. Huckabee and others assert is that the influence of God, and Christian values, have been removed, to our collective detriment. God surely has not been removed, nor have those values, at least not in most schools.
School officials are legally constrained in only two primary ways: (1) they cannot proselytize, and (2) they cannot require students to engage in religious observations (most commonly, prayer). Obviously, a variety of related matters may fall under these two broader headings.
In practice, this basically means teachers may not try to convert students to any faith. This would include preaching whatever dogma they consider holy. Such practice would also be a violation of professional ethics and practice. If a math teacher, for example, is spending any portion of their very limited class time preaching rather than providing the best possible opportunity to learn math, that’s an obvious problem. The same would be true for talking about his family, his hobbies, or anything other than what he is hired to do. In such a case, we have a teacher who doesn’t understand his or her professional obligations and who may well need to be involved in a different profession.
Occasionally in my career, I have run across very earnest young teachers who believe teaching provides them the opportunity and mandate to minister to their students, and occasionally, fellow teachers. I recall one eager young man who, shortly after joining the faculty, sent an e-mail giving us the choice of participating in his “ministry.” I gently explained to him that while I appreciated his sincerity, I had no time for such things at school, and I recommended he reconsider his focus. I later learned the principal eventually had to explain that teachers have to make a choice to be teachers or ministers, and the two do not mix on campus.
It is the second prohibition that causes most of the trouble, for it is this that prevents mass prayers in the classroom and particularly, at athletic events and graduations. Some schools continue to flaunt the law and a variety of states have instituted daily “moments of silence,” as a thinly veiled subterfuge to bypass the law.
Railing against a supposed prohibition of prayer in school is unnecessary, and ultimately, foolish. Any student—or teacher—may contemplate God or pray essentially whenever they like in school. One of my favorite aphorisms is:
As long as there is algebra, there will always be prayer in school.
As long as a teacher’s prayers are not preventing them from discharging their scholarly obligations or are not disruptive, prayer is perfectly acceptable. How would anyone know a given person was praying rather than daydreaming, thinking or merely resting their eyes? I often take the time to pray, but never when I have duties that require my attention.
Little Johnny may not, in the midst of English class, leap to his feet and cry, “Oh Lord, smite this evil English teacher!” Little Abdul may not roll out his prayer rug in the middle of social studies class, face Mecca, and loudly begin to pray. And little Suzie may not start dancing and chanting in the middle of Chemistry lab. In the same way, students may not read the Bible or any other religious text if such reading is disruptive, or if they are supposed to be reading other materials or doing school work, but they are otherwise unconstrained.
Students may read the Bible on their own time, between classes, at lunch, before and after school, etc., but they may not read the Bible when they should be reading assigned literature or other texts.
I trust, gentle readers, you can see the practicality and wisdom in these few restrictions? In a society of multiple faiths, in a society that practices tolerance for all faiths, it is important schools remain essentially neutral and concentrate on providing the best possible educational opportunity. This does not, however, mean schools must pretend to be ignorant of the existence of religion, or of its place in the lives of faculty, staff, parents and students.
Students are free to practice their faiths, but not on instructional time. Schools commonly offer classes on Biblical literature, teaching the scriptures in the contexts of their literary, social, archeological and historical properties, and such classes are widely offered across the nation, as they are in my high school.
I know that some schools try to prevent kids from Bible reading and other obviously legitimate, protected expressions of faith, but by and large, they are merely uninformed and overzealous rather than anti-religious. They are trying a bit too hard to obey the law, a body of law they obviously don’t know well. Such uninformed practices can usually be corrected by an infusion of accurate information and gentle persuasion.
What then is permissible? As a teacher of the mother tongue, it would be impossible for me to teach much of the literature written before the mid 1800’s without frequent reference to the Bible and to faith, and I do not shy away from it. Among my daily practices is the posting and discussion of a daily saying, an aphorism that helps my students to better understand literature and human nature. While I don’t generally use scripture, many aphorisms are plainly inspired by scripture, which I also mention to broaden kid’s experience.
In exploring literature, I must also be a history teacher, which necessitates the mention and explanation of theology. Faith is so inextricably bound up in American culture and life I’d be negligent to omit mention, discussion and explanation of it.
Even in etymology, I must deal with faith and related concepts. Few students, and few adults, know that “amen” means “so be it” rather than “all done; where’s the food?”, or that “hallelujah” means “praise ye the Lord.” My students named “Joshua” are surprised to learn their name—in Hebrew–means “the Lord saves,” and those named “Jesus” are astonished to learn that their name–in Greek–also means “the Lord saves.” Few of my students know that “Catholic” means “universal,” that “pax vobiscum,” means “peace be with you,” or that “kyrie eleison” means “Lord have mercy.” They are equally surprised to learn that the classic Byrd’s tune “Turn, Turn, Turn” takes its lyrics directly from the Book of Ecclesiastes (3: 1-8).
As part of my student’s cultural education each year, I play selections from Handel’s Messiah, which takes its lyrics directly from the Bible. Though Handel wrote the work because that was what sold at the time rather than out of deep religious devotion, my students can appreciate it for its musical, cultural and historical value and its artistic brilliance, or if they please, for its spiritual depth.
In my school a Bible club meets regularly, and various religious observances such as “See You At The Pole” often take place. The faculty advisor of the club is actually an ordained minister, but is careful to avoid any conflict with instructional time–the events take place before or after school hours–and participation is voluntary. All of this is perfectly legal and proper.
Every day I give the kids a chance to answer questions for extra credit points. Some of those questions relate to official–legislature decided–state symbols. A long-standing joke in my classes goes like this:
Me: “What’s our official Texas sport?”
Me: “Nah. That’s our religion.”
The actual answer is rodeo.
But in my school district there are no prayers at football games or other athletic contests. That’s important. How do we teach kids to respect and support the rule of law if we don’t demonstrate respect for it?
All students are free to find religious instruction and practice that suits them and their families at any time other than school hours. While I might be more informed about theological issues than some, I’m surely not a qualified minister or theologian. I can provide some insights and information they might not get elsewhere, but my students are far better served in religious instruction by qualified ministers than other teachers or me.
I know that some will argue that some schools apparently don’t teach students to behave properly and don’t enforce proper values. No doubt this is true, but it has never been true in any school where I have worked or about which I have knowledge. In such places, what we’re really talking about is incompetent administration rather than a lack of religious instruction or a refusal to hold daily prayers.
It’s easy for politicians like Mike Huckabee and others to blame problems on assumed cultural deficits in our schools, but the evidence just isn’t there to establish a cause and effect relationship. We know very little, at the moment, about the killer in Connecticut and why he chose that particular school. And when we know as much as we are ever likely to know, I very much doubt that a lack of religious observance in that—or any other school—will have anything to do with it.
[Since, we have discovered a very great deal about the Sandy Hook killer. Whatever his problems, it is crystal clear there is no evidence whatever of religious–or anti-religious–motives. Nor is there any evidence of any cultural deficits attributable to a lack of prayer in schools–which does not exist–as a causative factor. The third article in my three-part series may be found here. It contains links to the other two articles.]
We’ve removed God from schools? Not in law or in fact. Besides, we don’t have the power. We never did. That’s a delicious irony for anyone who imagines any law passed by man–or in this case, never passed–can affect God, isn’t it?