Although some people think otherwise, the Supreme Court of the United States has never outlawed the ability of students to pray in school. Each student is free to pray alone or in a group of other kids. The only stipulations are that the actions cannot be disruptive or infringe upon the rights of others who wish to conduct themselves in other ways. It is a right to engage in a voluntary prayer that doesn’t force others to be a captive audience or compel participation.
When we look at the prayer in school debate, the Supreme Court has set the precedent that organized or sponsored activities in this manner by a public school are not permitted. This stance remains in effect even if the prayer is delivered by a student. There are four separate cases that date to 1962 that impact this perspective. Any school officials asking for or requiring compliance, or students acting in that regard, cannot pray over a public address system, at high school football games, or during graduation.
It is also essential to remember that many of the advocates seeking prayer in schools are in favor of Christian prayer only. They do not wish to have other faiths or perspectives offer a similar experience, which would be the logical outcome if the Supreme Court would overturn over 50 years of precedent.
List of the Pros of Prayer in School
1. Prayer sets a standard of personal conduct for people to follow.
Proponents of the idea of organized prayer in schools feel that it has been operating outside of the idea that there is something supernatural that impacts us all. “Humanism assumes that the supernatural does not exist and that reality must be discovered purely from man’s reasoning,” writes Eric Hovind for Creation today. By returning prayer to schools, the idea would be that it sets a standard of personal conduct.
Prayer tells people that they are more than just an animal or a collection of energy and chemicals that occupy space. It is an action that proclaims the importance of all life and shows that there is a destiny for everyone if they are willing to take it. It also helps to guide students toward better choices throughout the year.
2. Having prayer in schools could boost the morality seen in the classroom.
Proponents of having prayer in schools say that its removal in the 1960s was a trigger that may have caused SAT scores to drop, teenage suicide rates to increase, and divorce rates to rise since there is no longer a public acknowledgment of God’s existence in the classroom. When people are not given the option to pray, then there is a severe threat of spiritual decline that enters our communities. The individuals in charge of teaching children already have the responsibility to offer balanced learning options. How can they do so if they are forbidden from teaching prayer, but they can also decide to show students ideas like evolution while promoting personal perspectives on life?
3. It gives students an opportunity to come together.
When students are of the same faith, then having prayer in schools gives them an opportunity to come together in the spirit of unity. This advantage applies to those who have a different spiritual perspective as well. Although critics would point out that this action excludes non-religious people, there is power in prayer to bring people together in ways that go beyond what anyone can expect.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower even offered what could be considered a short encouragement for prayer in the 1940s on the eve of D-Day. “Good luck!” he wrote in conclusion. “And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.” Having prayer in school isn’t about forcing compliance. It is a simple acknowledgment that there is a desire to seek blessings in this life that may fall outside of human perception.
4. Prayer is more of a personal expression than a religious requirement.
Prayer is an action that is just like a song, speech, or mantra of positive affirmation that public schools would likely allow from an organized standpoint. Bringing it back to schools would allow each student to openly or privately pray when they feel the need to do so. Some would take this opportunity to convey their love of God to other people, while others might use this option to focus, prepare for a test, or manage a negative emotional response to a situation they encountered during the day.
5. It would allow students to receive exposure to other religions.
Although there are some supporters of prayer in schools that are adamant about it only including Christian beliefs, modern America does welcome all religions and faiths with open arms into its society. You can practice Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or any other religion because it is part of who you are. If we were to allow prayer in schools, then everyone would have the right to practice their faith in a way that best suits the needs of their faith. This would help today’s children become more aware of different cultures in personal ways that may not occur otherwise in society.
6. Having prayer in schools would promote tolerance and understanding.
When people of any age are exposed to other religions, it tears down the stereotypes that people build about those who follow certain practices. You would have a very different idea of someone who practices Islam by getting to know them and their prayer habits compared to what you see on the news or read online. The same is true for different Christian denominations and other cultures. This advantage provides each community with an opportunity for everyone to promote acceptance and religious tolerance instead of separation and anxiety.
7. It would give more respect to religions that require more time for prayer.
If you were to practice Islam, then you must have salat time each day. This ritualistic prayer occurs five times daily, and it is an integral component of how one practices their faith. There are specific religious practices in other spiritual approaches that require certain actions or responses as well. When we make prayer in schools a formal and inclusive approach, then we’re giving more respect to the faiths that require this time daily. Without this option, students must secure hall passes or request formal permission to be excused during the day when they have religious practices to complete.
8. It allows students to understand how to manage conflict.
One of the unusual advantages of having prayer in schools is that it creates a polarizing debate. Teachers who are passionate about their faith often choose institutions that permit prayer because it allows them to incorporate their spiritual life into their work. This emotional reaction adds value to the classroom that makes a positive difference in a student’s life because it pushes people to become better.
There will always be the occasional person who tries to leverage their influence in unhealthy ways. A small group of teachers and coaches each year are caught having inappropriate relationships with their students. Showing kids what the outcomes of life can be with prayer is certainly healthy, especially if it shows them how to manage conflict.
9. Prayer in school might help students apply to more institutions of higher learning.
There are more than 1,000 different institutions of higher learning that take a Christian approach to education, yet they also accept applicants no matter what their religious beliefs happen to be. It is not unusual for a degree that comes from a school that allows prayer to hold more weight with employers than one that comes from a public institution that does not. Retention means stability in the life of an individual, and it is evidence that someone knows how to manage challenging situations in successful ways.
10. It gives us an opportunity to reach across the generation gap.
For the generation born on or after 1980, over 25% of individuals in the United States do not affiliate themselves with a specific religion. When we have prayer in schools, then there are opportunities to discuss the individual core beliefs that makeup who we are. Knowing what these differences are creates diversity in the classroom, offering more strength to the educational process. Even when people say that they are unaffiliated with their faith, a majority of students still share a majority of their parent’s perspectives on morality, death, heaven, and hell.
11. A personal prayer doesn’t need to be a specific message to God.
The act of prayer has specific, positive psychological benefits to those who participate in this activity. Even if you substitute the term for “meditation” or “personal reflection,” the benefits remain. Although organizations and critics might claim that a specific prayer can lead to one religion being promoted over all others, the answer to most freedom of speech actions is usually to offer more choices instead of fewer of them. If schools want to offer prayers under any name, then giving them the go-ahead to do so while offering a reasonable alternative could widen our perspectives of life.
List of the Cons of Prayer in School
1. The Supreme Court ruled that involuntary school prayer violates the Establishment Clause.
The First Amendment is often looked at as the piece in American government that offers everyone the right to free speech, religion, and press. What some people do not realize is that there is also a component about government-established religion in this addition to the Constitution called the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment begins by saying, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” which is the reference to the Establishment Clause. If a public school, a government-run institution, requires students to follow prayer from one specific religion, then the Supreme Court believes that such an action violates this right.
2. Requiring prayer in schools would violate the separation of church and state.
The separation of church and state in the United States is a jurisprudential and philosophic concept that defines the relationship between government entities and religious organizations. Although this phrase is not in the Constitution, it did begin to appear in a series of cases in the 1940s. The decision in Everson v. Board of Education incorporated the Establishment Cause, determining that it applied to all states. The Supreme Court has mentioned it more than 25 times, sometimes embracing the principle more than others. Requiring prayer from a specific religion would qualify as an issue here too.
3. It could change the purpose of going to school for some students.
Voluntary prayer is already legal if the action occurs in a non-disruptive way. One could argue that formal school prayers are therefore unnecessary because this action never left in the first place. When institutions are given the right to perform the duties of a religion, then the purpose of their presence changes. Would kids be going to their classroom to learn about reading, writing, and arithmetic, or does prayer in school create opportunities for institutional proselytization?
Critics of the idea of having organized prayer in schools would say that children should go to the classroom for educational purposes instead of religious observance. Religious private schools offer an alternative environment if parents wish to use them for their family’s needs.
4. Forced school prayer could lead to an environment of intolerance.
The public school system in the United States was created to provide an educational benefit to all students and families. It receives financial support from all taxpayers in each community in one way or another. That’s why there is an emphasis on having the institution remain neutral from a religious standpoint since there will be issues where people will have differing opinions.
When groups of people find themselves at odds with others on crucial moral issues consistently, then it can lead to an atmosphere of intolerance. Prayer in schools would highlight the various religions differences that families have of which many students would be unaware of. It could even lead to the bullying or ostracization of those who refuse to participate in such an activity.
5. It creates a coercive set of circumstances for students.
Even if we set aside the issue of religious differences, schools provide an authoritarian relationship for students. Teachers and administrators are in charge, and the students are in a position to follow the expectations of the adults in the room. That means an adult with an agenda would have the ability to coerce the kids they’re charged with overseeing to a specific point of view under the threat of poor grades, discipline, or other adverse outcomes. This issue is why the Supreme Court allows for individual students or groups to pray together on their own time or quietly while in class instead of having the institution’s officials lead it.
No one can stop a student from quietly praying in their mind when sitting in a classroom. Most people wouldn’t even know that is what the student was doing at that moment. One could even argue that this principle follows the ideas presented by Jesus in Matthew 6. “But when you pray,” the Bible says, “go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
6. There is not a formal prayer that can honor every tenet of each religion practiced by students.
Even if there was an effort to only include Christian prayer in U.S. classrooms, this debate would still occur because of the differences that exist between the different denominations. Should the school pray in a way that Catholics would find suitable, or should it follow the principles taught in Protestant churches? Then you might have differences that separate Baptists from Methodists. The reality of prayer is that it is a component of faith, which is an individual experience first and a group experience second. That’s why this action is better left in the home or in a religious setting instead of at the local public school.
7. Students still need to have role models to have morality.
A student needs to see the people in their life living by example to understand the difference between right and wrong. Although individuals can figure out their moral compass independent of this process, it is imperative that we have role models in our schools who can show kids what it means to make positive choices. Parochial students often commit crime or use drugs at a higher rate than those in the public school system because they lack access to leadership. Depending on prayer as a way to enforce discipline is like sending positive thoughts to someone who was the victim of gun violence. It excuses personal responsibility because there is a dependence placed upon God to do something about what is happening in society.
8. No one stops teachers from praying by themselves either.
A former kindergarten teacher named Alicia told a website called Teachers Who Pray that many teachers are dealing with high levels of fatigue. “Too many teachers are emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted,” she wrote. “Prayer for teachers, as well as students, will make a huge difference in the whole school.” It should be noted that the same rules that students follow will also apply to teachers – with the exception that a group of adults cannot lead a group of students in this activity.
The current laws regarding the existence of prayer in school encourage kids to take the initiative in this area. Worries about eroding morality or the decline of the separation of church and state are both slippery slope arguments. If you don’t push people for compliance, then the activity is not banned in U.S. schools. You can also attend a private school where you can pray openly in the classroom without an issue if you prefer.
Should We Promote Having Prayer in School?
The pros and cons of prayer in school can become a contentious debate. It can seem like there is no common ground on this issue. Gallup consistently finds that more than 60% of Americans like the idea of having organized prayer during the school day, while over 75% have said that a Constitutional amendment addressing this idea is one worth pursuing.
It is essential to remember that prayer hasn’t been banned from school. Teachers, principals, coaches, and other staff are not permitted to initiate it. Your child can start a school club to connect with others who share a similar faith. Then they can meet, pray, and discuss their spirituality during or after school assuming that the actions don’t infringe on the rights of others.
Students are less impressionable than most people realize. Only 4% of children raised without religious affiliation later start joining the practices of a specific faith. It is the influence of the family that is most important in this debate. If parents spend time talking candidly about their personal beliefs, that activity will have a significantly positive impact on a child’s life.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.