Why Are Some People so Uptight about School Prayer?

If you look at the rules, it’s a non-issue. As SCOTUS has made crystal clear, the rights of students in public schools to pray and read prayerfully from their Bibles have never been in question. Yet as Cavan Concannon pointed out recently, the issue still causes hi anxiety among some conservative evangelical activists. Why?SOTL

As Concannon points out, conservative groups such as Focus on the Family still ring alarm bells whenever there is a misunderstanding. As one FoF spokesperson warned recently,

How would you respond if one of these scenarios happened to your child, or to a student in your youth group? . . .

  • A father expresses concern after his daughter, a high school student, tells him an education official stopped her from bowing her head to silently pray before eating lunch.
  • A fifth-grade student brought his favorite book, the Bible, with him to class to read during a free reading period. But according to news reports, the teacher had him come up to her desk and, in front of the class, left a message for his parent explaining that she noticed he had a religious book and was not “permitted to read those books” in her classroom.

Sadly, none of these scenarios are fiction.

Not fiction, sure, but also not all that scary, once you read more about the stories. In one, the school district quickly apologized. In another the teacher said it didn’t happen. Still, there is no reason why students should have to even explain themselves. Their prayers should be un-challenged by their schools. The FoF folks are 100% right when they say, “schools should be celebrating these [prayer] rights and educating students about them, not stifling them.” Students have every right to pray and read the Bible in their public schools, as long as they don’t disrupt the day-to-day functioning of that school.

So what’s the problem?

That’s just it. In spite of the hi anxiety expressed by groups such as FoF, there isn’t really a problem. We do not see—contrary to FoF claims—“more news headlines like these every year.” We do not see—and I’ve been looking!—evidence that public-school districts are scheming to keep students from exercising their religious rights. We do not see, in short, any evidence that the “religious freedom” of conservative evangelical students is under attack.

So why do so many conservative activsts say that it is?

I’ve got a hunch. For the past century, America’s public schools have been moving in fits and starts toward a more secular dynamic. In the 1920s, as I argued in my first book, the so-called anti-evolution campaign was often actually an attempt to install frankly theocratic regime in public schools. One “anti-evolution” bill considered in Kentucky, for example, would actually have done a lot more than ban evolution. One amendment specified that Kentucky’s public libraries could not contain any books that

directly or indirectly attack or assail or seek to undermine or weaken or destroy the religious beliefs and convictions of the children of Kentucky.

That’s right. Back in 1922, conservative evangelical activists didn’t only want their religion included; they wanted it to utterly dominate.

By the 1960s, conservative evangelical activists had long abandoned any hope of taking sweeping control of public institutions. But many were still shocked when SCOTUS ruled in 1963 that teachers could not lead students in the Lord’s Prayer or devotional Bible reading. Consider—as just one example—the fiery sermon delivered by The Rev. Ray Chamberlin on September 8, 1963, at Faith Baptist Church, Cynthiana, Kentucky, as reported in John R. Rice’s Sword of the Lord newspaper.

The problem, Chamberlin preached, was that public schools in America were meant to be Christian. As he put it,

Since the earliest days of our educational system in one-room log cabins, the Bible has been read and prayer has been made to the God of the Bible.

The recent SCOTUS rulings, Chamberlin warned, had thrown that worthy system into the garbage.

What was the solution? Chamberlin liked Alabama Governor George Wallace’s aggressive approach. If public schools stopped reading the Bible, he promised to go to that school and read it himself. Let them send in the troops if they wanted to.

But that’s just it. No one sent in troops. No one is hunting down religious students—Left Behind style—and forcing them to give up their prayer groups. With a few exceptions such as the ones FoF described above, religious students of all backgrounds are praying in their public schools if they want to.

I think the real problem comes from the unique history of conservative evangelical religion in America’s public schools. For good reason, conservative activists feel that they have lost something. As they repeat so often, evangelical Christianity really did serve as the de facto religion in a lot of America’s public schools. When schools act in secular ways, conservative evangelicals feel like they have been usurped, abused, mistreated.

Unlike other religious groups, conservative evangelicals feel like they were kicked out of public schools unfairly. It’s not that they actually are denied many of their rights as citizens. No, it’s more that they sometimes are treated like every other kind of citizen. Namely, they are welcome to express their religion in public schools, but they can no longer expect those schools to give their religion a special place.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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