My best guess is that prayer is filling the walls of a school building many times a day. When a teacher hands out a test, prayer. When you are worried about your best friend’s safety and depression, prayer. When you are in a lockdown due to a threat, prayer.
Recently the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Washington state high school football coach who led his team in prayer after games. The district had said he couldn’t pray publicly and make the team all pray together after games. The district was trying to avoid endorsing one religion’s viewpoint over another. But in a 6-3 ruling, this coach and many other coaches and teachers will now be allowed to lead their students in prayer.
As a youth minister, I am not celebrating this as a victory for the faith of our teens. The freedom of religion and separation of Church and State is in place so that all may practice religion so that we may have mutual respect and tolerance for each other’s religions. In the context of school, I think it is liberating for our young people to not have the people in power leading them in faith practices. Again, I want our young people to turn to God in prayer in school, I want them to have the freedom to pray, but not the coercion to pray the way a coach or teacher might lead a prayer.
This conversation can’t happen without discussing power dynamics. We cannot pretend the one Muslim football player on the team truly has the agency to walk away from the Christian coach when it’s prayer time. The students do not have the power in the relationships with their beloved coaches and teachers, so they feel the pressure to conform. As a student, your grades, college acceptance, and participation in sports and clubs depend on the endorsement, welcome, and guidance of teachers and coaches. And what if a coach’s religion or expression of faith goes against your values and faith? What are you to do as a student and player? The power imbalance here leads to the coercion of prayer and religion, whether you intend it or not.
I hope our young people do pray at school, live out Jesus’ teachings of inclusion and love, and feel God’s presence with them on fields and in classrooms. But I very much hesitate when leaders at schools guide students in faith and prayer. I prefer they leave that for churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and youth groups. In Matthew 28 Jesus invites us to go and make disciples, promising to be with us every step of the way. But how do we invite people into a faith that has changed our lives for the better? I can think of a lot of ways to invite people to experience faith without coaches and teachers praying in schools or on fields.
-Written by Brittany Porch
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Afraid I have to disagree with this blog a little but first a caveat: It’s been 69 years since I attended class in a public school system. I realize some things changed.
My school had essentially three religious groups, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. We learned a little about the other groups. We recognized and respected, and, yes, even celebrated their holidays. I think the important thing is that we came away with a mutual respect for each other and each other’s beliefs.
I have no problem with a teacher or any public authority leading a prayer so long as it is made sincerely and absolutely clear that active participation is voluntary. Also, any such prayer must be absolutely non-sectarian. Yes, that means it cannot close as we Presbyterians usually close a prayer. (Actually, I believe that He already knows if I am praying in His name.). Nor can it mention any name for the Deity that is associated with any particular religion.
I agree totally. Thanks for expressing it so well. I think you can also (and probably do) help the young people learn how to evaluate a prayer. God help us beat the socks off our opponent probably won’t cut it.
Hi Brittany – You are so right. Students learn by our actions. Coercing them into religious behavior is not the way to go–just look at those who spent 12 years in Catholic schools. I would love for that Texas school to have a Muslim prayer before or after the game and see what people think.
Brittany—thanks for expressing such a common sense perspective to this question of church and state. Let the kids who want to pray to their God pray, but don’t put kids in the position of having to pray with a state sponsored authority (teacher or coach). Our God gave us the free will to make these decisions on our own.
I can affirm that you are correct that prayer already happens in our public schools, albeit not necessarily out loud, but privately. I found such prayer a necessity to get through the day sometimes, and Christian values are modeled and even taught. For example, “Be kind to one another” is basic in most classrooms.
Also, I was privileged to teach “The Bible as Literature” in the high school of a fairly conservative community. It was an elective in the English curriculum. I tested it first as an adult class in the local Presbyterian church where it was well received.
In the high school it was so popular that we had to offer a second level course where students had the opportunity to do research on a faith tradition other than their own. I learned a lot too, both from my preparation and from my Mormon students, who gifted me with a copy of The Book of Mormon.
I confess I wonder if it would be possible to offer such a course today. Teachers had more freedom during the seventies and eighties when I was able to offer such courses for ten years. Education has changed so much, and I’m happy I taught in a different era.