The Role of Daily Prayer in the Public School System
On a recent visit to London, I was amazed with the country’s reaction to England’s loss in the World Cup soccer tournament. One newspaper headline called it “The Shame of a Nation.” The head coach promptly resigned before being fired and the celebrity soccer team captain, David Beckham, stepped down from that honored position.
The most shocking reaction was the intense public blame the media and the public showered on the team.
I have never witnessed the level of blame doled out by the English public for an athletic loss — or for any other disappointing human failure for that matter. However, I have seen another act of blame almost as interesting as the English reaction to its World Cup defeat. It was the blame placed on public school administrators, school board members and other officials back in 1962 when the daily time for prayer was removed from public schools in the United States.
A common misconception is that all things bad started to happen in public schools the day daily prayer was eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court — violence, drug abuse, truancy, etc. Many older adults advise me candidly of this “fact,” and they believe returning prayer to public school classrooms will instantly make schools better places. It is an interesting point of view because I, too, attended school during the time when daily prayer was a part of the school day. Yet I must disagree with the critics, and I question their memory of those “good old days.”
Can we allow this rosy ideal of the good old days of school prayer to exist without sharing some disturbing social history? We should not forget that back then daily prayer was defined as Christian prayer. I don’t remember any room for diversity or religious tolerance during our daily prayer time. Students were not encouraged to pray according to their own religious beliefs.
We had daily school prayers but we also had school segregation, discrimination and denial of voting rights. We were separate and unequal, but we prayed daily. Was the quality of education really affected by the daily school prayer? Many students with special needs were unidentified or denied schooling and others were completely isolated or segregated from the general school population.
But we set aside time for school prayer every day.
Daily school prayers often were recited by members of the class or led by someone over the public address system. For many, these prayers had great meaning, but for others it was simply another routine part of the day. Many prayed sincerely and attempted to follow their prayers. Others failed to live up to them, simply going through the motions. The prayers were in the people and of the people, but the location or place didn’t truly make the prayers special or more meaningful. Only the people, not the schools, could make that happen.
Last fall I was the guest speaker at a joint community religious program where I publicly asked the preachers, priests, rabbis, mullahs and others to stop fantasizing about the loss of school prayer and to start encouraging more prayer from people in general. Prayer never left the public schools. Anytime is prayer time if prayer is in the people. No one needs a designated time to pray to one’s God. Schools are not places of worship.
I must admit, though, with the growing number of high-stakes tests in our schools today, how can prayer not be close at hand in our classrooms?
Prayer in schools is not as important as prayer in the people. Let us continue to work to make the people better.
Reprinted with the permission of the American Association of School Administrators. © AASA
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