The school year is arriving again. This seems
like a good moment to revisit that continually confused and confusing issue,
prayer in schools. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding
of what kind of prayer is permitted in the public schools of the United States
of America. So let me take this column to review what is and what is not
allowed with regard to prayer in public schools.
What kind of prayer is allowed in a public
Everyone and anyone who goes to a school may
pray there. "Everyone," that means students, teachers, staff and
administrators, may offer a private prayer to the divine at anytime they
choose. "Anyone," that means any person of any religious faith, be
they Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon, or Native American. It also
includes members of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Wicca. Even Pagans and
Neo-Pagans can pray, as can members of any religion or worshippers of any god
or goddess I have not mentioned. Thus praying in the schools is permitted to
everyone there, as long as it is private and personal, and does not interrupt
legitimate school activities.
It is also OK for students of like beliefs to
join together to pray, whether informally ("let's meet at the west door
before the bell") or more formally in a religious club of voluntary
membership. This club may meet on school property, such as in a classroom, at
times when clubs are usually allowed to meet. The only exception to this is if
the school has banned clubs altogether. The rule of thumb is that religious
clubs must be treated the same as other clubs.
Similarly, it is permitted for teachers, staff,
and even administrators to join together voluntarily to pray. Again, this may
occur in formal or informal settings.
What kind of prayer is not allowed in a public
It is not OK to pray in a school in way that
would knowingly or unknowingly coerce anyone of a different belief to join in.
Thus teachers, principals and others in a position of authority should not use
that position to persuade, require, expect, or intimidate students or others
under their supervision to take part in prayer that they otherwise would not.
Schools are inherently hierarchical and those who are higher in the hierarchy
should do nothing that would seem to exercise that position to make those below
Similarly, prayer should not be part of public
school functions. Although this rule can be a bit vague, the main principle is
clear. A general prayer offered in a manner designed to be inclusive of all
present, whatever religion they adhere to and articulating generally positive
sentiments agreeable to them, is sometimes acceptable, if not done too
frequently. Graduation ceremonies can usually include this kind of prayer. Prayers
that adhere to a single doctrinal line or reflect a non-inclusive theology do
not belong at school functions, even if said by a student. These general
prayers should not be ended with a religion-specific phrase, such as, “In the
name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
In general, prayer should not be conducted in
such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a
Finally, participation in prayer should not be
used as a basis to reward or promote those who take part or to withhold such
rewards from people who do not. Favoritism should not be shown to members of
the same faith and discrimination should not take place against members of
different religions. Administrators should takes pains to ensure that even the
appearance of favoritism does not arise.
rules, both positive and negative, are designed to ensure every individual's
freedom to believe and worship as they choose, and to prevent the power of the
state (as exercised by the school and its employees) from interfering with that
right. Those who do not follow such rules may be exercising what they see as
their own religious freedom, but they will be doing it at the expense of the
religious freedom of others. It is the balance of everyone’s religious freedom
that the rules aim to maintain.
Labels: School prayer, separation of church and state