Potential Problems of Prayer in Public Schools

Potential Problems of Prayer in Public Schools

As a public high school science teacher with 41 years of experience, I have watched with interest the struggle over school prayer. We recently reported on the United States government easing restrictions. At the same time, we must be cautious about potential problems of prayer in public schools.

At one time, I taught at Jackson High School in South Bend, Indiana. The school was aware that I traveled on weekends giving lectures on why I believe God exists. They decided to allow the students an opportunity to hear my presentations. There were some atheist attempts to get me fired for doing that, but they had failed. Even though I traveled on weekends, I never missed a day of school because of the lectureships. I also never brought my material into the classroom. I was hired to teach physics, chemistry, and earth science, and that is what I did. I gave my presentations during what was called “mini-courses” during the homeroom period. The students could choose to hear me in the school auditorium, or use the swimming pool, or shoot baskets in the gym, or attend a class on ballroom dancing, or play cards in the cafeteria. The school enrollment was around 1600, and we had over 1000 who came to the auditorium.

Contrast that experience with what has happened in recent years. We have mentioned cases where students received disciplinary action for mentioning their faith in graduation exercises. Coaches have been fired for kneeling in silent prayer before or after a game. All of this has prompted the Family Research Council (FRC) to draw up what they call the “Declaration of Religious Rights in Public School.” The document says that students do not lose their constitutional rights of religious freedom and free speech when they step onto school grounds. As long as it does not interrupt instructional time:

1) Students can pray, read their Bible and other religious material, and talk about their faith at school.

2) Students can organize prayer groups or religious clubs and promote the meetings.

3) Students can express their faith in classwork and homework.

4) Teachers can organize prayer groups and Bible studies with other teachers.

5) Students may be able to go off campus to have religious studies during school hours.

6) Students can express their faith at a school event.

7) Students can express their faith at their graduation ceremony.

I’m sure that the FRC had lawyers involved in preparing this, and many of their ideas are very good. But they may be an invitation to potential problems of prayer in public schools. They may not understand what goes on in a public high school like James Whitcomb Riley High School in South Bend, Indiana, where I taught in for 41 years. For example, how do you control students going off campus? Maybe their religion promotes free love and rejection of parents. Are kids allowed to go for all religious classes? If not, which ones? Is the school facility going to be used to have meetings of religious clubs, and, if so, who is responsible for what goes on? If one student expresses their faith at a school event, do you have to allow every student who has a faith of any kind to share it? These are a few of the potential problems of prayer in public schools.

Jesus made it clear that the Church is not to be a part of the state (Matthew 22:21 ). If the state is providing education in math, English, science, etc., it cannot become an arena of religious conflict. A politician can have a religious faith, but the floor of the congress is not the place to promote doctrinal principles. The public school cannot be that either.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Problems in American Public Education

Stable Family and Public Education

Sometimes I have the opportunity to speak to groups of teachers or community groups interested in public education. One of my comments in those presentations is that I know what the basic problem is in American public education. I can give it to you in a very simple personal statistic. In 1959 when I began teaching at James Whitcomb Riley High School in South Bend, Indiana, I had a freshman homeroom with 32 kids. Four of those kids did not have the same last name as the person who was listed as their parent or guardian. When I retired from Riley 41 years later, I had a freshman homeroom with 32 kids in it. Only four of those kids did have the same last name as their parent or guardian. Kids who grow up in a stable nuclear family have a distinct advantage over kids who grow up in a climate of change and insecurity.

I was reminded of that fact when our local paper came out on Mother’s Day with a list of the 12 valedictorians of Mishawaka High School—a large public high school in our area. All 12 of them had the same last name as their parent or guardian. Please do not misunderstand these comments. We are not saying that kids who come from homes where there has been divorce or death are doomed to failure. Many of our children turn out well in spite of us, not because of us.

The fact is that God’s plan for the family provides the ideal environment for kids to grow up with the drive and motivation to be productive adults. Ephesians 5:15-6:4 instructs Christians in these matters. As a public school teacher, I have seen the wisdom of that teaching over and over. No politician will ever be able to solve the problems of public education until the problems of the American family are resolved, and I would suggest that only Jesus Christ has the power to do that.
–John N. Clayton © 2017