Prayer in Schools and the Problem of Coercion

By: Claudia Winkler

February 13, 2020

Politics of School Prayer

Editor's note: This post was originally published on July 21, 2014 in Cornerstone, the blog for the Religious Freedom Projectin response to a series on the role of religion in public schools.

Almost ninety years after the Scopes Monkey Trial, the controversy surrounding religion in schools rages on. Christian groups at public universities are being required to accept all students regardless of their beliefs, while public universities are being stripped of funding for assigning readings that offend the religious right. A conservative school board in Texas is still pushing to incorporate a Christian narrative into history textbooks and intelligent design into science classes, while “enlightened” liberals abroad are banning forms of Muslim dress from schools and, in some cases, from public space altogether.

I find my own position on religion in schools has evolved, so to speak, over time. Had you asked me ten years ago how I felt about religion in schools, my response would probably best be described as allergic: moral outrage over the idea of prayer in schools and severe discomfort in any public group situation with unexpected religious overtones. In short, the usual symptoms.

In the meantime, I’ve mellowed out a bit, and I’ve come to realize that there should be and is room for people of all faiths—or no faith—in public schools, and that there’s a right way and a wrong way to make that kind of space.

Take the issue of prayer in schools. At my high school in South Carolina in the early 2000s, many students participated in “prayer at the pole,” meeting voluntarily at the flagpole every morning before school to pray. At the time I thought it was silly and found it hard to believe that something like this was allowed at my high school. Now, though, I view it as a perfectly acceptable practice. If it is important enough to teenagers to pray rather than gossip or do other oh-so-important teenage things before classes or during breaks, who am I to question that? So long as it doesn’t disrupt courses, is done in a designated area, and doesn’t involve coercion, who cares? 

But that last caveat is important, because I think people have different ideas of what constitutes coercion. If I’m in a classroom with twenty-five of my peers, most of whom identify as Christian (as does my teacher), and there’s class time (or any other time we’re all together) set aside for “voluntary” prayer, that’s coercion. Because lest we forget, schools are places of indoctrination—they are where we learn social behavior, where we learn what our society deems worth learning or not—and places of enormous peer pressure. And if the image I’ve painted for you seems far-fetched, trust me, it’s not. I lived in the Midwest for the first twelve years of my life and the Deep South after that until I was twenty-two, and this is an entirely realistic scenario.

Now, change the setting to a public space like a football stadium before a game, and I become less sensitive. Odds are there’s a broader mix of people, and the pressure to participate is simply not there the way it is in a classroom of peers. Frankly, if these kinds of public prayers were done well—if, say, school officials invited a whole array of faith leaders to lead prayers—they could actually be quite educational and help build community. In short, is prayer before sporting events and the like necessary? Not at all. Will it kill anyone—an atheist, an agnostic, or someone of a different faith—to sit through a prayer before a game? Absolutely not. Is public prayer as described above a dangerous alliance of church and state that violates the First Amendment? I’d be inclined to say no, but that’s where the Supreme Court and I disagree. And at the end of the day, I’m happy to take my football without a side of religion, so I don't take great issue with the Court’s ruling. Moreover, I don’t think the Court’s position actively harms anyone’s ability to exercise his or her faith. Pray if you want to, just not over the school’s PA system.

Of course, I’m able to arrive at these positions because I’m an adult. I can approach these topics in a level-headed way because I’m not twelve or fourteen or eighteen and struggling to find my identity; because I’m not the only agnostic I know in my elementary school class in small-town Missouri or my middle school class in even-smaller-town South Carolina. Finding your way as a child and an adolescent is hard, and school is one of the primary places shaping you and telling you who you need to be. 

Seen in this light, it seems clear to me that schools should provide an environment that allows children to feel maximally comfortable in their own skin. If to the very devout that means praying, they should have a time and space in schools to do that. But if to others being comfortable means not praying, those students should also be able to go to school and never feel out of place for not professing a faith.

Opens in a new window