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