To Pray or Not to Pray (apologies to Shakespeare)

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By Pastor Larry Jones

We have the same discussion at our house every year sometime during August or September.  It coincides with the start of the new school year and the inevitable postings and words of those who lament the lack of prayer in public school.  “Our schools would be so much better if prayer was allowed in school.”  “The schools are in disarray because we have removed God.”  These are paraphrases of the many variations on the theme.  And then the discussion starts.  

“Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools.”  The debate has been raging for 50+ years and continues today. The interpretations of this ruling over the years have been contentious and numerous.  Everyone has an opinion. 

In reality, the law only regulates school mandated prayer in public schools.  Students and teachers may pray silently.  The old joke, “as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in schools,” applies.  No one has taken away the right to speak to God. 

What has been limited is the situation where a particular individual, teacher or administrator, can lead a prayer that would impose their particular religion on someone else.  For example, one of the best teachers our son had in elementary school was a Hindu.  When she is standing in front of a classroom of third grade students, what prayer does she lead?  Is she expected to lead them in a prayer that goes against her religious beliefs?  Can she lead a Hindu prayer, or mantra?  Who decides?  To take this a bit further, the principle of that school was a member of an evangelical Christian denomination that believes baptism is an essential part of salvation and anyone who has not been physically baptized cannot enter heaven.  The denomination also forbids the use of musical instruments when worshipping God.  I certainly did not want our son exposed to that view of Christianity. Even if it would not be overtly expressed in a prayer, the knowledge that the person leading the prayer believes that way can have an effect.  Imagine the confusion our son could experience from hearing a daily school prayer led by someone who believes that his father’s calling to music ministry was not in the will of God because we believed and did things differently.  The many complexities associated with a mandated prayer time quickly become obvious.

Most often, when I read or hear the comments from people about wanting prayer returned to schools it seems to be a paradox.  Again, an example from our personal life.  My wife was a public-school educator for 27 years.  She will tell you very quickly that she never walked into her classroom without praying.  She prayed for the students.  She prayed for their families and their home situations.  She prayed for the faculty.  Everything she did and said was bathed in prayer.  And now the paradox.  Many of the advocates for prayer in schools are current or former educators who consider themselves spiritual.  If they are spiritual, do they not pray for the students and all others within their sphere of influence?  And if so, is that not prayer in schools?  

Which now brings us to scripture.  Jesus shared a parable in Luke 18:9-14 about 2 people, a Pharisee and a tax collector, praying in the temple.  The Pharisee stood in a prominent place and made a show of his prayer, enumerating all of his attributes as a follower of God.  The tax collector was off in a more private area where all he did was ask for God’s mercy.  Jesus distinguishes between the two by sharing that the first person had their reward of being seen, but the other was the one who went away justified in the sight of God.  Below is a hymnic version of the parable.

Up to the temple one fine day went one who thought he knew God’s way.

The Pharisee, so tall and proud, with arms upraised prayed thus aloud:

“How glad I am to be unique! I’m strong where other men are weak.

I fast and tithe at your command, and walk with you, God, hand in hand.”

Then standing humbly far away, with no such righteous resume,

A tax collector bowed his head, “Forgive me, God, I’ve sinned,” he said.

Up to the temple one fine day went two who thought they knew God’s way,

But Jesus said, in God’s true sight, the right was wrong, the wrong was right.

God should be come to you in pride, remind us of our sinful side,

That all who worship in this place might seek and find forgiving grace.

Text: Mary Nelson Keithahn, © 1996, Abingdon Press

Prayer in schools should be more akin to the words of the tax collector and less like that of the Pharisee.  People who advocate for public prayer in schools, like the Pharisee, will have their reward if they get their way.  The prayers will be uttered publicly and with great fanfare and they will celebrate “prayer in schools.”  It is the prayers that emulate the tax collector, however, that truly bring God’s presence into the schools.  Those who pray privately for their students, and all aspects of their teaching, are the ones practicing prayer as Jesus taught.