Prayer in Schools: Rights, Restrictions, and Me on the Radio

Whenever I listen to the radio, I usually turn it off or change the station when anyone starts talking (I just want to enjoy the music). However, last week, I heard an interesting story. A mom called in because her son’s coach (who is an atheist) wouldn’t let him and his teammates pray before and after their football games. Now this is Texas, so football and religion freedom are a big deal. The deejays invited listeners to call in, and as an agnostic* former public school teacher, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to educate on civil liberties (and if you know me, you know I do so love to chime in). You can hear my thoughts at 1:51 via this link: http://www.mix947.com/media/audio.

The conversation quickly devolves into typical morning show fodder, but it’s such an important topic that I wanted to participate. I was surprised that the deejays and some of the other callers really didn’t seem to know the laws governing prayer in schools, and I tried to address that in a short amount of time. Reflecting later, I realized that if those individuals are representative of the population as a whole, then that calls for the dissemination of information. So that’s what I’ll try to do here.

What follows is my understanding of the law regarding prayer in schools. If you’d like more information about religion in public education (or you just want to fact-check me), visit https://www.aclu.org/issues/religious-liberty/religion-and-public-schools.

Rights:

·         Religious liberty protects the rights of students to pray at school individually or in groups.

·         Additionally, students have the right to express religious viewpoints, form religious clubs, and read religious literature in school.

Restrictions:

·         Schools are to be religiously neutral environments, so school-sponsored prayer (at award ceremonies, sporting events, graduations, etc.) is prohibited.

·         School officials (teachers, administrators, coaches, etc.) are not allowed to lead prayer.

·         Students may pray so long as it does not cause a distraction or interfere with the education of others.

·         Minority-faith students and non-believers shall not be subjected to pressure to conform to the majority’s religious beliefs.

Prayer in schools is such a hot button issue, but I think it’s due to misinformation. If you look at the protections and prohibitions, they’re actually quite reasonable and respectful. It makes sense. We send our children to school to be educated not indoctrinated. It’s my right as a parent to determine if and how I want religion (as well as which religion that is) to be a part of my daughter’s upbringing. The government (via public schools) doesn’t get to make that decision for me.

So there you have it: children can pray in schools. The Bill of Rights guarantees that. Just remember that the right to believe or not applies to every individual in these United States. Your beliefs and your right to them do not usurp those of others. That’s why the separation of church and state is so foundational to this country. We cannot hope to protect the religious freedom of all if our government promotes only one.

 

*I identified as atheist on air because I didn’t want to spend my precious seconds explaining the difference, but I will here. In a nutshell, atheists do not believe that God exists. Agnostics, on the other hand, believe that the existence of God is unknowable.