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Ethics and Prayer in Public Schools

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Day Two of my ethics reading. I’ll present the arguments as they are explained in my textbook, and at the end, I’ll provide my personal thoughts on the matter. Interspersed are green words in parentheses that indicate my words, vice the words of the text. Again, the textbook I am taking notes from is as follows:

Mosser, K. (2010). Ethics and Social Responsibility. (E. Evans, Ed.) Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/books/

The issue:

Whether organized prayer should be allowed in public schools, and distinguish between allowing prayer and promoting prayer.

The argument for allowing prayer:

For a religious or spiritual person, the relationship between himself and God is “the most precious relationship of all.” To respect that relationship, our First Amendment prohibits any interference with religion. Prohibiting school prayer is prohibiting the free exercise of one’s religion. (First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”) It follows, then, that eliminating prayer from public schools is wrong and unconstitutional.

Many religious values, like honesty, charity, and nonviolent problem solving, are important to society, and public schools should reinforce those virtues. Reinforcing moral lessons can reduce teenage pregnancy, STDs, gang violence, and drug/alcohol use.

The argument is not to force a specific view (which would violate the 1st Amendment and the Establishment Clause), but provide voluntary prayer for those who want to participate. For example, the Golden Rule is found in many religions, in many cultures, and is fundamental to “good” society.

History and current practice are in line with this argument: for 200 years, public schools allowed voluntary prayer. Thomas Jefferson refers to the Creator in the Declaration of Independence (one of my personal, favorite arguments to bring up about whether this country was founded on Christian values). The Senate and the House both maintain a chaplain, who opens sessions with a prayer. Money says “in God we trust”, the Pledge of Allegiance says “one Nation, under God,” and American presidents usually end speeches with “God Bless America.” (Our graduation at boot camp and most major military ceremonies also opened with  “Let us pray,” where even if you were not religious, you were still to bow your head for the duration, due to being in military formation) Most (sane) people don’t see these as violations of the First Amendment.

Preventing prayer in public schools (or any other public place for that matter), is to require people to follow the dictates of the non-religious minority (over 70% of Americans claim to be religious). Short prayers at ceremonies or other large get-togethers (football games and assemblies) remind students of moral values and reflect the wishes of a large part of the student body in most public schools. To prevent it is against their wishes, the wishes of their parents, and the Constitution itself. Denying the opportunity for prayer prevents moral lessons from being reinforced in children who need it, ignores our history, and conflicts with a large majority of the population’s desires.

The argument against prayer in public schools:

The United States is very diverse in many ways, including religion. All Americans have a right to religious expression, or no expression for atheists. To impose prayer on those who do not pray is to violate their rights.

Prayer at a ceremony or game may seem innocent, but if the prayer specifies a particular belief of God, it does not fit all religions. On the other hand, if it is vague and general, it doesn’t really serve a purpose, and will still single out some students who do not share that view. If prayer is included at mandatory events, the prayer is not voluntary. Also, students are very much influenced by peer pressure, and may not bring up alternative views for fear of embarrassment. They would rather “belong” than leave a venue due to prayer, so the prayer is not truly voluntary.

Public schools should not impose specific religious values on students. Schools can teach the history of religion, the differences in religion, and its role in society, but may not endorse one over another. Our public school system is failing, and students are achieving less academically than students in other countries, so the time spent in prayer and specific religious viewpoints would be better spent on the educational mission.

Many parents prefer to leave specific religious and moral education off the curriculum. Many religious parents do not want religion taught in public school so that those ideas do not conflict with what they are teaching their children at home and in the church- where religious teachings are appropriate.

“The Constitution does not allow public schools to promote any specific religion or religious viewpoint.” Any prayer in public school would either violate this ideal, or be so vague it is pointless. No view can encompass all religions as well as atheists, and schools have more important things to spend time on. Many parents do not want their religious views conflicted at school, and prayer in public schools cannot be seen as voluntary. Therefore, prayer in public schools should be prohibited.

Application of Theories:

The utilitarian view is “do the greatest good for the greatest number,” but what is the greatest number?

There is a saying “As long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in school.” This says that individuals cannot be prevented from engaging in private prayer. Such prayer is voluntary. The Supreme Court has also ruled that students may organize voluntary religious clubs, which can include prayer and Bible study, at public schools, like any other club.

This is the difference between allowing prayer and promoting prayer.

Act Utilitarianism

In a given school, district, or community, it is likely that a majority of its members belong to a specific faith. The greatest good for the greatest number, then, would be to allow that majority to pray how they wish. To prevent this is to hold the majority hostage to the will of the minority. It is clear that the greatest good for the greatest number means allowing the majority to practice their faith the way they choose.

Rule Utilitarianism

Not only are the minority’s views being ignored, but many in the majority will be upset with the fact that the minority are not being accounted for. This brings down maximum happiness (or utility), so the greatest good for the greatest number would prevent organized prayer.

Some (Textbook) Conclusions:

Religion is very personal. It is often a cornerstone of a person’s understanding of himself. Because a person can define himself by his religion, that person may feel his rights are restricted when he is not free to express his beliefs when he desires to. It is unlikely, however, that all people, of all faiths, and non-faiths, will be happy with any outcome.

Thinking about the issue legally and generally, people are paying more attention to the “voluntary” part of prayer. Individuals cannot be prevented from praying in public schools. Religious clubs cannot be denied. These are both voluntary acts. However, school-sanctioned events, like football games and graduation, are usually seen as “inappropriate locations” for prayer, because it automatically means the school is endorsing that view. Insisting on general prayers tends to make the prayer pointless to those who feel strongly about their beliefs.

There is no answer that will please everyone, but the two words to really learn from this debate are “sensitivity” and “tolerance.”

What Would You Do?

“You are a high school principal, and some students want to organize a school club devoted to studying and discussing atheism. You are concerned that they may spend some of their time mocking the beliefs of other students. Some of the students in your school have already expressed to you their concern that such an officially recognized student group represents a view that many find offensive.

“Do you allow the students to organize the atheist club? What restrictions, if any, do you impose on what they can do and say? What do you say to parents who call to protest the existence of such a club?”

My thoughts:

When I was in school, we had thirty seconds of silence after the Pledge of Allegiance. You could pray, you could study, you could do whatever you wanted, as long as you were quiet. It was a time for reflection, and a pause in the beginning of a hectic day. There was a guy in my first period class who used to say the Pledge with “under Gods.” I think he did it as a joke, but I didn’t take offense to it. There were some who would refuse to say that line altogether. Now, there are some kids who don’t even want to stand or put their hands over their hearts. That’s a different issue for a different day though.

Of course, especially growing up, I didn’t consider myself religious. I knew the thirty seconds was “supposed” to be for prayer, but that didn’t mean I had to pray. I didn’t take offense to it either. Everybody, whether Christian, Muslim, or atheist, can take thirty seconds out of their day to think. I think this is a perfect way to satisfy most people.

I know the text is specifically talking about during ceremonies and such, but why can’t any prayer be replaced by a moment of silence? Those who wish to pray, can. Those who don’t, can just wait. It is respectful to those who wish to pray to stay silent. I think respect is a big piece of the puzzle that seems to be missing in our society today.

If everybody treated everybody else with the respect they expect, I think there would be fewer issues in this world. Christians, or more generally, religious people, are the majority, and for a reason. I am not saying that the rights of minorities should be ignored, but I do not believe that ninety-nine people should be denied their wishes because the one doesn’t like it. I don’t like the minority taking the majority hostage.

In this particular instance, I think a moment of silence is the “right” thing to do.

As for the atheist club, I don’t think it would be appropriate to prevent the club. As far as I am aware, all school-sanctioned clubs had to have a teacher present, though. If they had an instructor, they’d be allowed to have a club, just as a Christian group would, and that is exactly what I’d tell concerned parents. The instructor would be expected to maintain civility and respect in the club, just as any other club would be expected to do. I wouldn’t allow another group to be disrespectful of any other, so this group would be the same. Respect and civility towards all.

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05/27/2011 - Posted by | College Papers, Learning, Thinking | , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. As a Christian now, I don’t find offense in other people’s practices. And when I was younger and an agnostic, I didn’t care then either. I think the moment of silence is perfect way to let each do his own. My concern would be that if you allow my religion, my child my be subjected to another religious belief that I didn’t want them learning about at a age to young to understand.

    Comment by Sherrie | 05/28/2011 | Reply

  2. I believe the moment of silence is perfect, So many people in this world have nothing better to do then just complain about the bad things going on in the world, and are quick to jump on the persecution wagon just because they can. when you want to make something better don’t come to the powers that be with a problem, come to them with the problem and the solution, no one now a days wants to be apart of the solution. have we all forgotten the prayer we used to say when we were going up THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE

    Comment by david | 02/12/2013 | Reply


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