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Debunking the School-Prayer Myth

charles-c-haynes Inside the First Amendment
By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Hundreds of Christians rallied outside a high school in Santa Rosa County, Fla., earlier this month to protest a court order ending the involvement of local school officials in prayers, proselytizing and a school-sponsored baccalaureate service.

The crowd’s outrage was directed both at the American Civil Liberties Union for bringing the lawsuit and a federal judge for issuing an injunction that will change how things have been done in Santa Rosa County for a very long time.

“We want the children to know we are for them,” said one pastor, “even though they took Baccalaureate away from them.”

In reality, however, the court hasn’t taken anything meaningful away from the religious community. On the contrary, the judge is actually giving Christians in the county schools something far better than they had before.

After all, which is better for their Christian faith? A baccalaureate service with watered-down to-whom-it-may-concern prayers and required attendance? Or a community-sponsored baccalaureate with real prayers and sermons attended by students and parents who want to be there?

And which is better for their religious freedom? School officials imposing prayers and proselytizing kids? Or school officials staying neutral about religion while guarding the rights of all students to express their beliefs?

Given the choice, many Christian parents in Santa Rosa County might still want school officials involved in praying with students on the assumption that school-sponsored prayers will reflect the majority faith. But as the religious demographics shift (and they are shifting fast, even in the Florida Panhandle) these same parents will likely take refuge in the First Amendment and demand that school officials stay out of the religion business.

The good people of Santa Rosa County are victims of the Big Myth that federal judges and the ACLU are kicking God out of the public schools. For more than 40 years, a host of irresponsible and self-serving religious and political leaders, abetted by sloppy reporting by the news media, have convinced many Americans that the Supreme Court won’t let Johnny pray in the “godless public schools.”

Nonsense. The Court has never outlawed prayer or banned religion from public schools. Students always have been and are today free to pray in public schools alone or in groups, as long as their prayers don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

What the Supreme Court did do beginning in the early 1960s — and what the federal judge in the Santa Rosa County case reaffirmed this month — is strike down state-sponsored religious activities in public schools. According to the Court, the First Amendment prohibits the government, including school officials, from either imposing or denigrating religion.

But there is absolutely nothing in the Constitution that keeps Johnny from saying grace at lunch, asking for divine help before the math quiz, forming a prayer club, or gathering around the flagpole to pray with classmates.

You wouldn’t know this, by the way, from reading some of the local newspapers in Santa Rosa County. An article about the rally described the judge’s action as “an order against any prayer or promotion of religion in Santa Rosa County Schools.” No mention was made of the myriad ways students are free to pray and share their faith while in school.

Here’s the truth about God in public schools: There is more student religious expression in public schools today than at any time in the past one hundred years. Students are forming hundreds of religious clubs (mostly Christian), handing out religious literature, praying with their friends, speaking up about their beliefs in class, and in many other ways expressing their faith during the school day. So much for the godless public school.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that all school officials are getting this right. Some, as in Santa Rosa County, persist in unconstitutionally promoting religion (their religion) while others insist on unconstitutionally censoring student religious expression. But growing numbers of educators understand that their job is not to take sides in religion — but to represent the First Amendment by protecting the rights of every student and parent.

Thanks to the court order, things are going to change in Santa Rosa County public schools — for the better. Students who want it will have their baccalaureate, sponsored by the community and featuring authentic expressions of faith. And students who wish to pray can do so, without school officials telling them when or how to do it.

Prayer isn’t banned from public schools — it just needs to come in through the First Amendment door.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].


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