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?

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Do You See Christian Students Acting Strange Today?

Are some students at your local public school lingering around outside?  Holding hands?  Circling the flagpole?

More to the point: If they are, should we be alarmed?

That depends, of course, on your feelings about the thorny issue of religion in public education.

If you see students gathering around the flagpole today, they might be taking part in “See You at the Pole” Day.  According to the Christian Post, this tradition started in Texas in 1990.  Christian students met in prayer around their school flagpole.  The point, according to Doug Clark, director of field ministries for the National Network of Youth Ministries, is to encourage Christian students to come together to ask for God’s blessing on their role as missionaries in their schools.

Clark hopes to see somewhere between 1-2 million public-school students participating in the USA and around the world.  So don’t be surprised if you see some at your local school.

If you do, what does it mean?  For those of us who work for pluralist, inclusive public schools, do we need to be alarmed?  Is this an abrogation of a Constitutional separation of church and state?

I don’t think so.  Though twentieth-century SCOTUS decisions made clear that teachers and schools must not force prayer or Bible-reading on public-school students, they also made it very clear that the religious rights of students themselves must not be violated.  It can get tricky when students lead prayers that seem to have the support of the school administration, as in the recent flap in Kountze, Texas.  Students have every right to wave Bible signs, but they don’t have the right to imply that such mottos are the official dogma of a public school.

In this case, however, students are demonstrating the private nature of their prayer by meeting at the flagpole.  They are leaving the school building, not using any of the school’s bureaucracy to encourage the prayer.  Students’ rights must be protected as they engage in religious activity of any sort.

But what about the “missionary” aspect of this activity?  Students here are not just praying, they are specifically praying for inspiration, praying for the power to convert their fellow students to their faith.  Or at least that is the hope of adult leaders such as Doug Clark.  What about the rights of their fellow students, students of different religious faiths—or of no religious faiths—who might be targeted for missionary work?

Even here, too, we must not fear.  It may be unpleasant for a student to be approached for aggressive evangelical efforts.  But such unpleasantness is not a matter for outside interference.  If a student wants to talk to other students about faith, he or she has that right.  As long as it does not disrupt school activities, the right to make one’s self unpleasant must be protected.  As long as it does not imply that the school itself supports that evangelical effort, student missionary work in public school must be protected.

It certainly makes me personally uncomfortable to think that religious students might target my daughter for outreach efforts as part of her public-school experience.  But I recognize that such outreach efforts are part of other students’ rights.  As long as there is no bullying, no coercion, no disruption, and no implied or explicit support of such missionary work by the school administration, my daughter cannot be protected from other students’ free speech rights.

So, for those like me who want to be sure public schools are inclusive public spaces for students of all backgrounds, if you see groups of students gathering in prayerful huddles around your public-school flagpole, don’t be alarmed.  Students in public schools do not abandon their rights to publicize their religion when they walk through the schoolhouse door.