Many Christians feel that removing teacher led prayer from school is persecution. This debate has come to Hall County with the letter sent by the American Humanists Association to Hall County School officials demanding that coach led prayer be stopped.
I grew up attending the Church of Christ every Sunday and Wednesday. I was baptized at age 10 and again at 15 because I was afraid I didn’t really understand what I was doing the first time. By 16, though, after reading the Bible, I became a secret agnostic and pretend Christian.
I continued to study the Bible and other world religions. By 23 I identified as an atheist-humanist. Having been on both sides of the fence I might be able to provide some perspective on this issue.
The early United States had no problem with religious instruction in school. Ironically, it was Protestant jealousy of the success of Catholic schools that led to the secularization of the schoolhouse. Early locally controlled public schools were de facto Protestant schools. Catholics not wanting to be persecuted started their own schools and lobbied for funding.
Instead of funding Catholic schools most states, including Georgia, passed the Blaine Amendment. This forbad the funding of all sectarian schools with tax dollars.
This also occurred on the federal level. In the 1870s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs contracted with mission societies to educate Native Americans. The Catholic schools quickly became more successful than the Protestant ones. By the 1890s, the Protestant schools stopped accepting government funding and lobbied Congress to stop funding the Catholic schools on the basis that it violated the separation of church and state, they succeeded.
A few years later, a Protestant lobby insisted on the removal of religious paraphernalia from the government schools, as most of it was Catholic, they succeeded.
Going back a century, in the face of competing religions, many felt better when schools advocated neither. It goes back to the Golden Rule: I don’t want you using taxpayer dollars pushing your religion on my kid, so I won’t push my religion on yours.
Since Christianity has been the default religion for so long, many schools have been able to ignore the court rulings banning teacher-led prayer. Now the inevitable has happened and someone is insisting that the court rulings against this be followed.
Is this persecution or the removal of a privilege long held? Having said that, the recent court ruling Town of Greece vs. Galloway may reopen a path to teacher-led school prayer.
Perhaps the court decisions banning teacher-led prayer is persecution. I’ll examine that from the humanists’ perspective.
This begins with a few premises. Teachers have power over students and act as agents of the state. Group prayer is a form of proselytizing and or religious sacrament. The humanist asks who is being harmed. Is it persecuting a government agent to insist that they not preach at you or your kid while attending a taxpayer-funded school or event?
Student-led prayer has been upheld by the court, so banning a government agent from proselytizing does not silence the religion. Which is more important at a school: A teacher’s ability to lead a prayer service or each individual student’s education?
Could a student face persecution or have their right to an education interrupted because they refused to participate in a prayer? Children are mandated to attend school. Should someone be legally mandated to go somewhere where they must opt out of a religious service?
Most humanists are well-versed in the Bible and are very familiar with Jesus’ condemnation of public prayer. Many humanists, perhaps incorrectly, see teacher-led prayer as little more than piety for attention, the very type Jesus warned against.
From a legal standpoint, I think both sides have good standing. However, I’d like to leave you with a few questions. Should religious activity be a choice? Do we really want to single out the child that may not want to pray or make them feel compelled to do so they don’t stand out?
Children succumb to peer pressure and seldom want to be left out. They will go along with things even if they don’t agree just so they don’t get picked on. Is that how we want our schools run? Is this type of peer pressure Christian?
Is Christianity somehow lessened because a student must organize a prayer instead of a teacher?
Brandon Givens is a Hall County resident, an educator and an occasional columnist.