Time to Pray at School!

It’s that time of year again. Time for students to gather together in their public schools and pray. You heard that right: School prayer is alive and well. In this case, it’s almost the fourth Wednesday of September, which has been set aside as a day for evangelical students to meet at their schools’ flagpoles to pray. This tradition started in 1990, and a San-Diego-based group has promoted the practice nationwide. Is this sort of school prayer constitutional? Even more tricky, are conservative evangelicals consciously pushing the limits of constitutionality with this kind of prayer event?

Let’s take those questions one at a time. Is this sort of student-led prayer constitutional in public schools? Short answer: yes. In spite of a great deal of nervousness among evangelical Protestants and other religious groups, the US Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel decision and its 1963 Schempp decision never outlawed prayer in public schools. The first decision ruled that states could not impose a prayer on students, the second that schools and teachers could not lead students in devotional Bible-reading or prayers. But students still may pray all they want in public schools.

The issues get more complicated these days over the question of school sponsorship. Most recently, SCOTUS ruled against student-led prayer in Santa Fe v. John Doe (2000). In that case, though, the Court did not rule that students couldn’t pray. They only said that the type of student-led prayer at issue implied school sponsorship. Students in Santa Fe public schools would use the school’s PA system to lead prayers before football games. Those prayers were always of an evangelical Protestant faith. The court ruled that such prayers implied school sponsorship of one specific sectarian vision of religion.

As ILYBYGTH readers may recall, the issue of school sponsorship has also been at the center of recent cheerleader debates from Kountze, Texas. It can seem a little perplexing. Down in Kountze, the Christian cheerleaders insisted that they were a private, student-led club. But objectors insist that their presence at the school games implies school support for their religious banners.

Student-led?  Or school-sponsored?

Student-led? Or school-sponsored?

What about See You at the Pole? Does it pass the Santa Fe test? Most observers agree that it does. Watchdog groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have noted that students are free to pray all they want, as long as teachers and school officials don’t encourage or discourage student participation.

To this observer, though, it looks as if the organizers of See You at the Pole are intentionally pushing the boundaries of constitutionality. This year’s theme, for example, is Ephesians 6:18a: “Never stop praying, especially for others.” And promotional materials this year show students vowing, “We’ll never stop.”

It might just be my yen for pluralism and inclusion in public schools, but it seems to me as if this language is consciously tweaking the nose of our school-prayer tradition. As I argued a few years back (behind a paywall, sorry), many conservative evangelicals interpreted the 1963 Schempp decision as a constitutional cataclysm. They viewed the decision as evidence that our society had turned its back on God.

When an evangelical group promises, then, that they’ll “never stop,” we can’t help hearing a sort of promise that they will never accept the notion of pluralist schools. When students insist that they will be praying for others, we can’t help hearing a sort of promise that they will turn their public schools into revival meetings.

After all, among some conservatives, there has long been a drive to re-assert evangelicalism as the implicit theology of public education. For example, evangelists Brad and Susanne Dacus published a handy-dandy guidebook to “Reclaim Your School.” Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, the Dacuses promised to help readers “evangelizing in the public schools.”

It seems to me as if the SYATP project wants students to do more than simply pray at their schools. The implicit promise is that these students will commit to preaching to other students in their schools. As national organizer Doug Clark told the Christian Post, the event helps students “represent [God] to their schools.”

To my ears, that sounds like more than just protection for the religious rights of students. It sounds to me like a plan to insert evangelical pressure into public schools. It sounds to me as if students are being encouraged to foster an environment in their public schools that might make non-evangelical or non-religious students feel decidedly unwelcome.

Is that my secular paranoia? Or do these SYATP events really encompass a sort of covert promise to reclaim public schools for public Christianity?

Leave a comment


  1. myonlyissue

     /  September 23, 2014

    “Praise Jesus” ok…back to class, today class discussion includes humans are a species, how to collect data and bioinformatics, combining computer systems to analyze personal heath data and match the language to the k-12 educational records, cloud based and global grid computing, corporate career readiness and finally mixing up germ warfare as a means of population control.

    There is no taking back schools, pull you children now.

  2. Agellius

     /  September 23, 2014

    “It sounds to me like a plan to insert evangelical pressure into public schools.”

    And if it is, so what?

    • In my opinion, we all must preserve public schools (and other public institutions) as aggressively pluralist and welcoming. No single theology or ethnicity may be allowed to imply that it is the ‘real’ public-school ideology or ethnicity. This is a protection for all of us. Take, for example, the contentious issue of evolution education. I agree with conservative religious folks who protest that the common attitude toward evolution education represents an unfair imposition of a secularist ideology on public education. Kids need to know about evolution, but public schools have no prerogative to imply that there is a “correct” religious (or non-religious) attitude toward evolution. In this case, the reverse is also true. Evangelical Protestant groups have absolutely no right to imply that a public school is somehow leaning toward Jesus. IMHO.

  3. It is the first step to evangelizing one’s school. Read “Girl At the End of the World” for a detailed description. Student led clubs often include Bible studies and instruction on how to “witness” to nonbelievers. I have no problem with individuals explaining their faith to those around them; I do have a problem with schools being turned into Sunday school classes in an attempt to coerce other students into adopting the evangelicals’ way of faith. It’s a fine line, to be sure.

  4. Agellius

     /  September 23, 2014


    Well, you beat me to the punch. Of course I was going to say that the secularist ideology has already become the de facto “official” ideology of public high school and college campuses.

    I can understand the argument that there shouldn’t be an official religion endorsed by the public schools, in the context of American democracy. But this is a battle that has already been won. That door is closed. No official endorsement of religion in public schools, everyone knows that.

    That being the case, I don’t see what ground there is for fearing that evangelicalism will ever again become “the ‘real’ public-school ideology”. The most evengelicals can hope for — and this is what it appears to me that they are shooting for — is having a large proportion of students in a given school be professed evangelicals, and thus creating an environment that is at least somewhat friendly to evangelicalism.

    But the majority of students have every right to be professed evangelicals if they want to, and they have a right to share the Gospel with their friends. Surely you don’t aim to forbid this?

    • I’m all for religion in public schools! But as Sheila says, in practice it can get oppressive. This is why I’m so very happy at my university. At our school, there is lots of religion, but no one type of religion is dominant. Students are free to participate in religious groups. They’re free to stand on the quad and proselytize. Because the student body is so authentically diverse, no one feels pressured to be Christian, or Jewish, or even pressure to join a fraternity or other sort of student club. In an environment like that, I say it is in the public interest for the school to promote student activity in all spheres. But life in many high schools and elementary schools is different. Depending on where you live, you might go to a school in which there is pressure to conform to a religious way of life. And that’s not acceptable. In terms of tomorrow’s prayer activity, See You at the Pole, it seems like a fair way for evangelical students to publicize their faith.

      • Agellius

         /  September 23, 2014

        I understand that it’s not fun for students when the majority of people espouse views that they don’t agree with, and they feel pressure to conform. But I’m not clear what you think should be done about that.

        If the majority in a given area happen to be evangelicals, would you employ forced busing to send them to a Catholic area or a Jewish area in order to attain more religious diversity?

        Besides which, religion is not the only type of ideology that can predominate in a school. In many schools a liberal ideology predominates, and conservative students feel overwhelmed and pressured to conform. Do you consider that a problem that needs addressing as well?

      • I don’t think anyone’s talking about forced busing. But that doesn’t mean that we all don’t have a stake in zealously safeguarding a pluralist vision of our public school system. Every case might be different. In one school, a group of students who want to pray at their flagpole might represent an authentically student-led prayer group. I’m all for it. But I can imagine–and I don’t think it’s a stretch–that at other public schools students might feel pressured to join in. My opposition to that sort of pressure is not just because I’m worried about the feelings of individual students. Rather, I’m concerned about the very nature of our public school system. In general, though, I support the SYATP approach, with the qualms noted above. In contrast, the preachy cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas seem to be an obvious violation of our norms.

  5. Agellius

     /  September 23, 2014

    I know you’re not talking about forced busing. It’s just that you were presenting “pressure to conform” as an unacceptable state of affairs, and I wondered, if it’s unacceptable, what you would propose doing about it.

    But what about conservative students feeling pressured to conform to liberal standards of speech and behavior? Why do you not consider that to be of equal concern?

    Frankly it seems to me that feeling pressured to conform is just a part of life and something that kids have to learn to deal with. A lot of kids raised in religious homes end up in schools where there is social pressure to not be a “prude”, i.e. to drink and have sex; pressure to abandon beliefs which others perceive as hateful, i.e. opposition to gay marriage, and so forth. But it seems religious kids are expected to just suck it up and deal with it.

    When my son was applying to college recently, I kept asking whether there were any options for Christian kids who didn’t want to live in a dorm where students of the opposite sex are allowed to visit in the dorm rooms until the wee hours, and even spend the night. I was told over and over that I needed to stop sheltering my kid; that he needed to be exposed to other points of view and value systems; that if I raised him right then I should not worry about his values being challenged, etc. Or alternatively, I was told to send him to a strict Christian school. In other words, deal with the secularist status quo or go elsewhere.

    And yet, there are special dorms for kids who are environmentalists; for kids who want to live substance-free; for kids who are gay, and so forth. But nothing for kids who want to live a wholesome Christian lifestyle.

    So, it’s hard for me to feel too much sympathy for kids who don’t want to feel pressure to conform in a Christian environment. There are much worse things for kids to have to deal with.

  6. Donna

     /  September 27, 2014

    To my ears, it sounded like don’t give up praying for others, and an encouragement to pray more often together.

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