Education Opinion

How Prayer and Public Schooling Can Coexist

By Eugene W. Kelly Jr. — November 12, 1986 4 min read

Can prayer and public schooling coexist in the United States? I maintain that they can and even should, but not in the fashion proposed by current school-prayer advocates.

Schools are arenas of intense, sustained human contact, and in this setting, occasional moments of prayerful reflection can bring clarity and strength. But when the school’s influence is used to sanction prayer, it can embarrass, offend, or even subtly coerce students contrary to their beliefs. Official, publicly sanctioned prayer does not belong in public schools; private prayer in the heart does.

The advocacy for officially sanctioned prayer in the public schools is counterproductive for at least two reasons. First, it is divisive and distracting. By attempting to ally public authority with a specific expression of religious piety, public school-prayer advocates provoke apprehension and dissension about government influence over freedom of thought and religion. And the climate of dissension between advocates and opponents of sanctioned school prayer distracts from the more pressing and complex issue of values in the public schools.

Arguments focused on sanctioned prayer in the schools tend to exacerbate value differences and obscure shared values. However, most of us do share certain powerful values and would like to see these find a legitimate place in the public schools. For example, citizenship in America is inconceivable without engagement in the issues and values of freedom, justice, and equality.

A society that relies so heavily on the initiative and enterprise of individuals must also encourage the values of self-discipline and personal industry. Our diversity requires tolerance, our problems require courage, our humanity requires compassion. And our failure to achieve these ideas requires understanding.

Public schools should be expected to nurture a tolerance for differences, a respect for others’ cultural and religious values, and a civility that does not subject others, even a small minority, to embarrassment or alienation.

Our individual right and freedom to pray privately wherever we choose, including schools, can become an expression of tolerance and civility only when we keep prayer completely outside the domain of public-school authority.

Government neutrality regarding prayer is not the same as private or social indifference toward prayer. But involvement in prayer does not grow from state sanctions. Indeed, such sanctions tend to distort the meaning of prayer, a second reason why efforts to promote state-sanctioned prayer are counterproductive.

Prayer will flourish, along with tolerance and respect, not because of legislative acts, but because individuals, families, and groups value and nurture the spirit of prayer in their own lives. Prayer is a response, not to human law, but to God’s invitation. Prayer comes (or does not come) not because we are insistent, but because we have learned to be open and attentive to possibilities beyond ourselves. “Be still and know that I am God.”

But neither will prayer just happen if children grow without prayer in their lives. For those who want their children to learn the ways and value of prayer, the long time of schooling is important. Many parents are rightfully concerned that during these formative years their children should learn the values, including the value of prayer, that will sustain them throughout life.

This is a crucial point of choice for parents and other adults who have responsibilities for children. One choice, mostly ineffective, is to insist verbally on certain values but largely delegate work on them to others; for example, turning over a child’s spiritual development to the church, synagogue, or mosque.

Another choice, neither realistic nor equitable, is to try to mold the world, including the schools, according to one’s own world view; for example, by legislating one’s own religious values and practices.

A third choice is for parents to invest their own time and energy in living with their children the values they wish to impart. In the case of prayer, this means learning and living the ways of prayer, praying with one’s children, and guiding them into the spirit of prayer. This kind of prayer is a far cry from the shell of state-sanctioned prayer in school; it is prayer that nurtures tolerance, not divisiveness.

Many adults have raised their children in this way of prayer. From them we can discover how children’s learning in the public schools and growth in prayer can go hand in hand. These parents pray with their children at home, in family gatherings, and in places of public prayer and worship. They pray for their children in school, and they pray with their children before school. They teach, from their own experience, how to have silent moments of prayer throughout the school day. They tie prayer to caring and respect for others, diligence in learning, helpfulness in common tasks, strength in rejecting destructive behavior, and patience in failing and starting over. They join prayer with laughter and tears and a will to live and rejoice. They do not legislate prayer; they live it.

Unfortunately, the debate over public-school prayer seems to get stuck in an either-or position--either state-sanctioned prayer or no prayer. This is a false and misleading dilemma.

Certainly we should keep the state completely out of prayer in schools and avoid any semblance of state sanction for prayer. But if parents think prayer is important, by all means let them guide their children into a life of prayer that will sustain them and grow with them through their school years.

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 1986 edition of Education Week