Religion Today

Sunday, August 30, 2009

It's OK to Pray in Your School

Well the school hear is beginning again, and so it is 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 school?

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, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, or Wiccan. 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 O.K. 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 school?

It is not O.K. 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 them pray.

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. In general, prayer should not be conducted in such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a particular religion.

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.

These 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.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Episcopal Church Chooses its Future

Well, it just goes to show that churches do not think like businesses. As of early June, six of the 50 states permit gay people to marry. You would think that given this sudden availability of people who can potentially wed that churches would be falling over themselves in competition to provide that service. They are not. Instead, there is a deafening silence. While I am sure that a few, perhaps smaller, denominations are celebrating marriages, most churches are not. Certainly not the larger, more prominent denominations.

A standard church wedding between a man and a woman brings them together before their friends and family who are present to witness their expressions of love and commitment to each other and to celebrate the joy of their union. The vows they speak to each other are said before God, which makes them in a sense the strongest kind of oath that can be uttered.

By the mid-20th century, the government had long taken over the "marriage business." A couple may get married in a church before God and the community, but until the marriage license fee is paid and the form signed, they are not legally married. The transformation of marriage into a bureaucratic act has the benefit of allowing greater flexibility in how a couple can get married, but it removes all but the essential core act of saying vows from a marriage ceremony. A "wedding" can take place without the church, without God, and without any witnesses apart from a judge like getting a drivers license. On the lighter side, it permits drive-through, Vegas weddings. But neither of these preserve the sanctity of marriage.

Since American society is largely secular, this is fine. Those who wish a wedding in a church (or a synagogue or a mosque or a temple) can easily obtain one, those who do not want a religious wedding can have their wishes as well. There is no social stigma attached one way or another. Both approaches to marriage are practiced by large numbers of couples.

It is in this context that July's decision by the General Conference of the Episcopal Church's of the United States to permit the blessings of gay marriages by Episcopal priests should be seen. For years, the Episcopalian Church had been out in the forefront on this issue. They had practiced the blessing of gay unions for more than a decade, long before it was legal for gay people to wed.

This practice, along with the ordination of gay ministers and the election of a gay bishop, threatened to split the worldwide Anglican Communion to which the Episcopalian Church belonged. So three years ago it voluntarily agreed to a moratorium on the blessings to provide a cooling-off period to enable the international church to resolve the matter in a way that would not divide Anglicans from each other. Despite much soul-searching, prayer, and meetings of bishops from around the world, the only practical result was the continuation of the moratorium disallowing the blessing of gay unions.

In the meantime, the Episcopalian Church lost its national leadership role on this issue. During those three years, five states decided to allow gay people to marry. With Massachusetts, this brought the total to six states. The Episcopalians saw that the rights which they had championed for gays were now available in these states, but the Church was not there to provide the rites. When the gay struggle was won in these states, the Episcopalian Church was not there at the end; the moratorium put it on the sidelines.

July's decisions to reinstate blessings of gay unions places The Episcopalian Church where it thinks it belongs, on the side of those who believe gay people stand equal before God. It is a matter of justice, but it is also matter of ministry. Gay believers who wish to unite should not be forced into a church-less marriage run by government bureaucrats. The Episcopalian Church wants to welcome them into the church's fold.