School Prayer

I’m not a fan of public prayers in public places other than churches. It makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable. Some of this may be my contrarian reaction to prayers in classes at BYU and to the often earnest but uncomfortable prayers offered up before dramatic performances. I don’t suppose visiting theatrical companies mind much; it goes with the venue. But I feel for the students who pray these prayers, whether they are a jumble of stock phrases or an earnest, but incoherent mush of sentiments that are slightly inappropriate for the situation at hand.

As an adult, I can experience different forms of worship and find inspiration. I can see common elements that speak to our shared faith, and I can enjoy the way a different emphasis can let me see the familiar with new eyes. And while I find pluralism comforting as an adult, it’s not always a viable worldview for children.

As a child, I was acutely aware that I went to a different church from all the other kids in my school. I can still distinctly remember being asked on the playground if I was a Christian and why I didn’t go to church like everyone else. At that time, saying I was a Mormon, but that I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God was not enough to overcome bible-belt skepticism. I remember prayers before lunches and school assemblies that used unfamiliar patterns, and it was not what I had been taught. And being a Mormon child, I felt good that I knew the real truth, and that though these other Christians might be good people, they were still in the dark of the apostasy. But let me tell you, that little bit of good I felt for being right was cold comfort for often feeling lonely and out of place.

I like secret prayer, a private conversation between me and my God. And I respect the power of a group praying together, unifying their wills with God’s, sharing hope and devotion together with a resounding “amen.” But I hated it when hearing another kind of prayer made me feel like the other, the outsider.

I can’t blame my childhood social failings on my religion or the religion of my Christian neighbors. But I never want to have my religion, my shared prayers, make another child feel like an outsider. Because of this, I am strongly against all official prayers in public schools, especially in areas where one religion is dominant. When it is easy to assume that you are right, and that most others agree with you, it is also easy to not notice those your actions marginalize.

33 comments for “School Prayer

  1. “I am strongly against all official prayers in public schools”

    I’ll second that. It is unfortunate that many Christians feel threatened by outsiders and secularists, and by the court system, which they feel favors the latter two over them. Many of them feel the need to try to impose their views and way of life by means of the public sphere. Oddly enough such an attitude of impositionalism appears to run counter to Jesus’ approach. Jesus operated privately through persuasion; by inviting people to come and follow him. He did not seek to coopt the public sphere to spread his word. His kingdom was not of this world, not imposed through worldly institutions.

  2. Public schools don’t conduct prayers of any kind in the US. Are you complaining about prayers at the opening of legislative sessions and city council hearings? The adukts in thise venues should be mature enough to recognize that the motive fir such is not to make them feel bad, but rather a belief that God is owed respect as our sovereign, and can bless us as, state or nation. If you.go to a public ceremony on an Indian reservation, having a religious invocation of some kind is a rededication of the community, not an instrument of ill feeling. Even childten should learn that other people have diffetent religious practices. If you are visiting their homes, you ate going to see and hear their religious practices. Respect them for their faith.

  3. There are a number of places for a public prayer:

    1. A public church service.

    2. A non-religious public event: School assemblies, football games, plays, movies, etc.

    3. A formal but sectarian event: A presidential swearing-in, the first day of congress, the opening of the Supreme Court, the dedication of a new medical facility, a public ceremony on Veterans’ day, etc.

    Number 1: I think that most of us do not have any problem with public prayers offered in church services.

    Number 3: Prayer in these settings has been under scrutiny from time to time. The “establishment” issue comes up: that the government should not play any role in the establishment of a religion. Some might argue that having a prayer at the opening of a session of congress is inappropriate because it gives tacit state sanction to whatever religion the prayer is based in. However, many feel strongly that acknowledging God in such settings may help that institution function better, more true to its design. It is hard to believe that a prayer in our U.S. congress today could be anything but a political statement of some sort. Speaking for me personally, I have no problem with prayers in such settings, because I don’t think that they weaken our secular tradition. Because I am immersed in our Mormon culture, I always find other styles of prayers to be interesting.

    However this kind of prayer can be oppressive in some situations. I attended at July 4th celebration in Heber City Utah while on vacation some years ago. Ronald Reagan would have been so happy there! Masses of blond-haired white skinned people in cowboy hats and jeans, with the roughened skin caused by sun-exposure: farmers and ranchers. Even though it was a “secular” event, the prayers were purely Mormon, and given by “Brother” so and so, or Bishop Whatshisname. If I hadn’t been a Mormon, I would not have felt like I belonged there. It’s an old problem: Does the “right” of the substantial majority (many hundreds) to simply express themselves outweigh the right of three or four Catholics, Jews, Muslims, or atheists who may have wanted to celebrate our country’s birth with the town? Or does that tiny minority simply have to suck it up and enjoy the majority culture?

    Number 2: This is the most difficult situation. It is easy for me to say that I disapprove of prayer in these settings… because I do. It is interesting to think of experiencing such public prayers as a majority religion (Catholics in Italy, Mormons in Randolph Utah) and as minorities, such as a Mormon in Vermont, or Alabama.

    Are there really prayers before classes at BYU? Really? Every class? I attended one year at BYU in 1982. I was in graduate school. I can’t remember a single prayer in class there. I must admit that my religious sensitivities were very different then. I was a recent RM, and had grown up in SLC. I was likely quite blind to a number of things that might bother me today. But I don’t remember any prayers before individual classes. (I remember the standing at attention during the national anthem because even then I felt like I was in North Korea or Stalinist Russia for that uncomfortable moment.) If there are prayers, I worry that such an immersion of prayer would cheapen the whole idea of prayer. Imagine all the praying I would do if I had five classes during a BYU day. I would pray…how many times? Morning prayer, breakfast prayer, calculus prayer, religion class prayer, lunch prayer, western traditions of literature prayer, byu devotional prayer, post-civil war reconstruction prayer, dinner prayer, and night-time prayer. If I were married, I would throw a couple of family prayers in there as well. I worry that prayer before classes could be used to curry favor with the professor: “We are grateful for our inspired, wise, and righteous professor of elementary education. May she be blessed in all…etc, etc.” And I worry about “vain repetitions” that Jesus warned against. The problem with a tradition like this is that it is almost impossible to end. Who wants to take a stand at BYU against prayer? It would take a policy statement by a GA or something like that to end. Anyway, for someone with a personality like mine, this kind of public piety would be more likely to push me away from godly devotion rather than towards it.

  4. In principal I like the idea of a commonish-denominator civic religion with school prayers. Certainly at graduations and such.

    Public piety is something to cherish, but from my experience at BYU and elsewhere, having prayers before class and theatrical events is awkward. This is one area where are predilection against set prayers works against us. if you are going to routinely pray before certain types of events, you need, if not an actual fixed text, at least a formula. Which we have with saying grace before meals.

    One counterbalance that reduces the awkwardness a little is that Mormons aren’t too sophisticated for plain ol’ naked appeals, which always gives you some ready-made appropriate content. Some of the discontent with public prayers BYU-style is simply discontent with flat out asking God for mundane stuff, which discontent is misplaced.

  5. I had some profs that would ask for a volunteer for prayer before class. I had one that would go by a seating chart, but asked us to see him to remove our name from the list if we didn’t want to pray publicly, assuring us that he understood because he also thought it was weird. When I was asked I made the prayer as short and mundane as possible. For example: “Father in Heaven, we’re hear to learn about X. In Jesus’ name we ask thee to bless us and help us to do so. Amen.”

  6. I know many people believe that prayer is legally a no-no in the US education system but reality is that prayers are standardly given in many public school settings including sporting events, production, assemblies, musical event and even some the classroom.From my personal experience as an educator in a number of areas in the US this practice is very common and seldom questioned. Having been both the minority and the majority religion at different time it has always been awkward and uncomfortable.

    On the list of reasons my college age students did not want to attend BYU is that they also were very comfortable with the many public prayers.

  7. I really should edit before I send. . please forgive and let me restate:” and even some classrooms.” and “my college age students did not want to attend BYU is that they also were uncomfortable with the many public prayers.”

  8. I really fail to see the efficacy of any sort of mandated public prayer, especially one with a fixed script. In fact, I would be ashamed of any religious person who allowed an educational institution or government entity to dictate the timing or the words they used to supplicate God, either in public or private.

    Even if a church leader asked me to say an opening prayer for a meeting and then attempt to dictate what I should say, I would refuse. Prayers are our words, our communication to God. It is free speech. And no one has the power to infringe upon that right and relationship.

  9. Raymond,
    I respect that this may not have been part of your life experience, but growing up in the South, there are all kinds of prayers in public schools. It is an unspoken assumption that everyone is a Protestant Christian and that no one will have a problem with this. There are prayers before school assemblies, graduation, sports games. There are religious readings from the Bible from kindergarten right on up. The baccalaureate service prior to graduation in many Southern high schools is an explicitly religious meeting, including a brief sermon or homily, religious songs, prayers, etc. My wife, who grew up in Utah and several Northeastern states, tells me that my upbringing was highly irregular, which I do not doubt. But the culture of the South is a thing apart and regular public school prayer is definitely part of it.

  10. I grew up in Provo, and don’t remember prayers in the public schools there except perhaps at assemblies or football games or other such quasi-religious events. I did spend one half of the fourth grade in Southern California, and if my nearly 50-year-old memory of that is accurate, I think we did have prayers in class every morning.

    At BYU, I don’t remember prayers in any classes except religion class, but there were the prayers at ballgames and plays and concerts. My father was asked once to pray at a football game and besides telling the person that he never went to the games, he may have asked what he was expected to pray for–forgiveness for wasting an afternoon in such a mindless entertainment, all in the name of a university?

  11. RTS, others have said it, but my wife (from the South) tells me that prayer at school and school events is a regular thing. She’s not nearly as disturbed by it as I (who never experienced it in Southern California) am. It may not be allowed, but it certainly happens.

  12. Even if a church leader asked me to say an opening prayer for a meeting and then attempt to dictate what I should say, I would refuse. Prayers are our words, our communication to God. It is free speech.

    Really? So a class instructor asks you to say a prayer and then adds, “please remember Bro. so-and-so who is in the hospital” and you will say “no way, it’s my prayer.”??? I thought the purpose of a groups prayer was to pray for the things that all members of the group would pray for if they were speaking… and that’s why we typically change the words I/me to our/we. When you are voice to a prayer you are praying FOR the group aren’t you??? When praying for (in behalf of) a group, wouldn’t it be nice to know what they group wants to pray about??

    Before our family prayer I go around our prayer circle and ask each person if they want to add something to the prayer. When in a class setting I have once or twice asked if anyone has anything pressing that we should/could pray for. Usually I get a no from everyone. But one time I got a lady who raised her hand and said she had found out that morning that her mother had cancer and asked if we would add her to our prayer that day. I did add it and was told it really helped each person feel more connected as a group.

    If someone asks me to pray for them, and gives me something specific to pray about… I find to reason I can’t do it for them.

  13. I was raised in Utah where I was the religious majority, and now live in Arkansas where I am the religious minority. I have never felt uncomfortable with a prayer in public in either case. Public prayer happens here regularly and I don’t feel uncomfortable that they use a different formula for the prayer.

    To the contrary, I am always gladdened that I’m surrounded by people who love God and want to give HIM their thanks and ask for his blessings. I occasionally travel with a group of men to Tennessee to pick up cars for a dealership here in town, and we take a moment in restaurants to bow our heads and one of use vocally prays for the group. The two Mormons get a turn as well. They don’t try to make me feel like an outsider, why should I make myself to feel like one? What they are interested in showing reverence and respect toward God. How could that ever make a religious person uncomfortable? In fact I would state the opposite… If you get uncomfortable with prayer, with someone thanking God for their blessings and asking for his blessings, then you aren’t as religious/spiritual as you might think.

  14. Kent,

    I’m one of three priesthood holders in my county of 15,000 or so. My branch covers 3 county just to find 40 of us (including children) to meet together. I’m definitely in the minority. I’ve found nothing uncomfortable about hearing others pray. They follow their pattern to express thanks to God.. and when they are done I say Amen along with them, because they are expressing the same gratitude I have in my heart, even if they use different words. My wife uses different words than I do when she prays, why should I, or anyone, be uncomfortable hearing anothers prayer?

    I read all throughout T&S posts were people are told to be more tolerant of differences of opinion, sexual orientation, gender roles, parenting, political stances, etc. and I’m told in those posts that it is okay for things to be different than the “standard LDS position” – that we need to expand what is acceptable to us. Why can’t we apply this to prayer… can’t we be comfortable with prayer in a method different than our own? Should we shout down all things different? or just shout down those differences that our religious?

    I condemn the treatment of the peole in your link, either Mormon or Catholic. The prayer wasn’t the problem as I read it, it was the teacher telling the student how terrible Mormonism was and apparent threats to them. Unless those prayers said, “please kill the Mormons” then the prayers weren’t the problem and there should be no problem for Mormons, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, etc, to all hear a prayer saying “thank you for everything you give us and please keep us safe and well”.

  15. Maybe this is heaping it on but what the heck..

    I too am proud to live in God’s country, the American South and I work for a county government dominated by the historically disadvantaged ethnic group. Let me tell you we pray all the time. I don’t know if surveys back me up but my impression is that racially diverse folks are quite a bit more inclined to religion and not bashful about displaying it in public. For a while we had daily Bible study from 9:30 to 10:00 am at work and you’d be damned if you interrupted anyone during it. Let the phone ring. This included announcements over the intercom as to which chapters everyone was reading. That was stopped officially but a few still quietly do it. From what y’all describe at BYU, those zoobies only lack a little zeal and authenticity to be like the more reserved and dignified portion of our blessed Southern folk.

    Recently a complaint was filed at work about the gospel music that blats loudly and continuously by a person unnamed who felt that they were being “evangelized” too vigorously. So we had “the day the music died” and people were not happy. Humming and individual singing has replaced it to a degree. Currently Christmas music is flying under the radar although even some of that can get loud and sassy, to the point of being revolting to my blue-haired aunts living in the heart of Mormonia. I suspect it will morph back into gospel music by the first of the year.

    I ride public transportation and perhaps a third of the people are reading a Bible or some religious book. One day a street preacher was yelling, “Y’all feel bad about missing that last train? Well, how ya gonna feel when ya miss that JESUS train?” In his excitement a few little blue plastic bags about a half inch square containing some white powder fell out of his Bible. Maybe it was just a pinch of flour in each but the way he was flouncing around picking them up you would have thought they was worth some real money. (You do know, wink wink, what the coca was in coca cola?)

    When BYU defeated Ga Tech in football, at the end of the game the entire Tech team “took a knee in prayer” as is common at the end of football games all across the South. BYU fans celebrated but seemed perplexed. When “Bama beats that unmentionable excuse for a seminary in Indiana for the national championship, you will see team praying at that game, if the national media doesn’t censor it.

    My children were prayed over all through the public schools at the beginning of every day and seem no worse for it. Some may know about the Atlanta school cheating scandal. Teachers who are willing to cheat on those standard tests to put it back in Bush’s face (for what the students called “every child left behind”) are not going to let the federal government stop their praying.

    Besides, as long as there are tests in school there will be plenty of praying.

  16. But let me tell you, that little bit of good I felt for being right was cold comfort for often feeling lonely and out of place.

    is this not the inverse of the modern american mormon zeitgeist?

  17. My problem with public prayers at secular events is two-fold. 1) There is no suitable opt-out mechanism. I went to a major university in the south and was surprised (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) to find that graduation ceremonies included a Christian prayer. Many students of a wide variety of beliefs and traditions were graduating, and we were all stuck in the middle of the basketball arena listening to a local pastor pray before we could receive our diplomas. It’s not reasonable to expect a soon to be graduate to skip graduation if they don’t wish to even passively participate, and so they had little choice but to sit there and take it. I do not believe the Lord would wish to force praying on anyone. 2) In my attemp to make my prayers meaningful, they are often intimate, which I would prefer not to share. I confess my sins, discuss my issues, speculate, listen, weep, plead, etc. If I don’t do these things (and these are things that deserve and thrive in privacy), then my prayer is rote and not edifying. The point is – I don’t believe I should hear most others’ meaningful prayers and I don’t want to hear their meaningless ones.

  18. little choice but to sit there and take it

    These college gratuates are so well educated that they can’t stand to listen to some gratitude and suplication for divine help? can’t they listen and say “amen” if they agree with what was prayed for and “not amen” if they don’t?

    My personal prayers are intimate too… but my public prayers aren’t confessions or full of weeping, they are just simple pleading for what I think most members of the group would ask for and expression of gratitude for what we have. I’ve never heard any public prayer from any minister or official that wasn’t essentially the same thing. Nothing inflammatory, derogatory, or offensive… unless you think the name of God is worthy of booing in public

  19. Jax, they should not be forced to sit and take it regardless of whether they cant or not. Forcing is Satan’s way, not God’s.

  20. I usually dismiss the “forcing is satan’s way” argument out of hand, because:

    a.) “I do not think it means what you think it means” – It’s usually applied in situations in which don’t actually reference Satan’s plan at all because actual agency is not removed. The addition of incentives and/or disincentives to encourage certain responses is not the removal of agency, though it can be nefarious. I don’t like coercion, but satan’s plan was to REMOVE agency. Not what we’re talking about when someone has a prayer and you can freely choose to leave, listen to your iPod, not attend, etc.

    and, following from that,

    b.) “Whatevah, I do what I want!” – I increasingly see this argument used as justification for people who want choice without any repercussion at all. No one ever promised that we wouldn’t have to live with consequences of our choices, whether positive or negative. We have to actually be agents unto ourselves and that means being accountable for the choices. Whatever happened to “Do what is right, let the consequence follow”?

  21. And of course, my editing skills are obviously not in full effect today. Fie upon the lack of an edit button.

  22. Also, I don’t necessarily agree that because something one does or says may make me uncomfortable that it necessarily follows that everyone must stop doing whatever it is that I am uncomfortable with. Sometimes it may be that what is being said or done is inappropriate, but I think usually it means that I need to just deal with it or remove myself from the situation unless it’s actually morally wrong. Not everyone has to conform to what I’m comfortable with. Being called to repentance isn’t necessarily comfortable for most people either, but it’s often necessary. I’m not sure how we have gotten to the stage in our society where we feel fully entitled to make people stop doing anything at all that we don’t personally like.

    Sorry for the triple post. I won’t do it again. Don’t smite me with your moderator powers, please. :-)

  23. I was at a concert at BYU Saturday where the venue staffer, wearing her official namebadge, prayed briefly after asking us to silence our cellphones. I wondered if she was paid clergy.

  24. J Town, I don’t think an end-around to a difference of degree is going to be very compelling as an argument. To be overly persnickety, we can’t force anything. A would-be murderer can’t even force his/her victims to die because they just might survive whatever horror is inflicted on their body. So I think it’s okay to use force a little loosely because, well, there’s no other way to use it. People in the commencement I described were “free” to get up and leave, but should they have to? Someone could flood my inbox with spam under the rationale that I was free to not have an email account, but I hope we’d both agree that doesn’t solidly justify the action of spamming. Those graduates likely did not attend that state university because they were looking for spiritual edification, and such a mission is beyond the purview of the institution’s charter, so it’s unreasonable to expect them to be a part of a public prayer at an academic event. To illustrate: The purpose of a place like Jiffy Lube is not advisory, so it’d be unreasonable to expect me to listen to the mechanic’s thoughts about romance before getting the oil changed in my car. There is a distinct disconnect between the broadly accepted cultural purpose of public education and public prayer, so the two should not be mixed. (I happen to like that distinction because I think in a diverse society a secular haven is conducive to social health and progress; others may disagree.) If you want public prayer in schools you should strive to change the culture of the society that defines the purposes of its institutions.

  25. I don’t like spamming but I certainly don’t call it “satan’s plan” either. I don’t even necessarily agree that prayer should be offered in school, but I am not convinced that it is a negative. In fact, I doubt that it is, though it could obviously be handled in the wrong way in some cases. Nor do I accept the argument that it makes people uncomfortable, therefore it shouldn’t happen.

    I can’t say that there isn’t an effective argument to be made for keeping prayer out of schools, but I haven’t heard it yet here.

  26. I was a senior in high school when the Supreme Court ruling about prayer in public schools was handed down. We were very self-righteous about it all, and our great sign of rebellion was breaking ranks (nearly all 700 of us) to gather around one of our student body VP’s and have a prayer anyway. It was Utah; I didn’t know much outside the state. My righteous anger seemed so well spent.

    And then I got the facts.

    The case that went to the supreme Court regarding prayer at graduation in the early 1990’s was started by a Mormon girl. She had taken severe harassment at school related to her not wanting to take a Bible that several students had tried to give her after hearing a particularly vile sermon on Mormonism at their local fellowship. She said she had her own, but the efforts and harassment escalated. She went to a trusted teacher who told her that if she’d just take a Bible the kids would leave her alone. She went to the principal who told her the same. Another girl (Catholic) was dealing with the same. The parents went to the board, insisting that this kind of thing should be a part of free or fair public education. They told her to take the Bible. That is when the LDS girl’s dad called the ACLU. The organization needed a target event in order to create a case. They targeted the prayers given before football games as the symptom of a larger problem.

    The rest is history–the details are lost, of course, as they are in so many other cases.

    We have chosen to raise our children outside of Utah for a variety of reasons. I appreciated the sentiments here, because I too find great comfort in knowing that their education is secular. The Constitution can take on new meanings when you find yourself in the minority.

  27. The funny thing about Science Teacher Mommy’s “rebellion,” as far as I understand it, is that prayer (and quite possibly her 700-person prayer) is still perfectly okay in schools–as long as government employees aren’t involved and it’s clear that the prayer doesn’t have the blessing of the school itself. Kids can still read Bibles and say prayers in schools. Nothing wrong with that. But the school itself, which is a government entity, can’t be involved with it.

  28. I have no problem with public prayers, no matter who is saying them, be it Christian, Muslim, Jew or Buddhist. Why should anyone (except perhaps atheists) object to someone asking for God’s blessing on whatever is to take place? It doesn’t matter what form they take. We need to respect the beliefs of others and accept their prayers as well as our own. But I definitely don’t believe the prayers should always be offered by a member of the same religion, even in predominantly LDS communities.

    I grew up in Canada and when I was in elementary school, we said the Lord’s prayer every morning. No one seemed to object.

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