For several years running now, I have found myself explaining the law about prayer in public schools — you’ve probably received the chain emails (if you’re old enough like me) or heard the talk radio host disparaging public schools for “banning prayer.” Now an all too commonly shared meme is “No wonder [insert tragic event of the day] happened; they don’t allow God in schools.” This was horrifyingly rampant after the Parkland murders, and as writers do, I took to my keyboard to work out my thoughts.
As is too-often the case for writers, I shared my post to Facebook thinking it wasn’t really something in which anyone but my friends (and probably mostly my teacher friends at that) would care to read. And it was then I had my first and only pseudo-viral moment; with 646 shares, it seems to have struck a chord. And in retrospect, of course it would; this misconception, beyond being a particularly disgusting victim-blaming instance of its use post-Parkland, is also used to demonize public schools anytime doing so advantages the speaker politically — most commonly when seeking to de-fund our public schools that serve 90% of our nation’s children (and, by extension, our families and communities). These efforts to harm our schools manifest in the shorter term through voucher programs that divert funds directly to private schools or through the long-game — actively starving our schools of funding through budget cut after budget cut.
Here is what I posted to my Facebook page one year ago today through my sadness and anger:
I’m way overdue for annual PSA on prayer in schools — I’m particularly horrified that this is all over the place right now…as if God abandoned these children because He was angry about policies…that’s not the God I know.
Also, importantly, these laws supposedly banning prayer in schools do not exist. You read that correctly — educators are disallowed from imposing their own faith on students (and for good reason—we’ll get to that) — there is nothing that prevents kids from practicing their own faith, whatever it may be. For those of us who believe in God, do we really believe God could be expelled from schools even if people or the law tried? But they don’t.
The law says that teachers don’t promote a particular faith but they also do not denigrate faith. As a Catholic teacher at the time when I was in public schools, for example, it would not have been respectful of my students (of widely varied beliefs within and across major religions and some non-religious kids too) to ask them to say the Hail Mary (a super misunderstood prayer but that’s an entirely different post). And no matter the teacher’s faith, her/his imposing it on children would breach each family’s right to their own faith or worldview being safe in school.
Kids can (yes, legally) read their religious text at school (the Bible included–in fact there is one in most every school library — again, yes, legally–religious texts may indeed be included). Kids can pray at school (silently or, yes, aloud as long as it’s not in the middle of the math lesson). Kids (not teachers) can evangelize at school. Want to try to recruit all your friends to your faith as a fifth grader? That’s your right. Importantly, too, those friends can say, “Sure, I’ll check it out,” or “No thanks,” as they like.) Kids can even have religious-based clubs at school that meet at non-instructional times. Public schools are spaces that welcome everyone (their faith being part of who they are)…hence the word “public.” And yes it must be safe for nonreligious folk and for religious minorities as well. Public…a space that brings us together. Teachers not leading kids in prayer is a matter of respect to each family’s ability to convey their beliefs as the parent(s) see fit, not an insult. The persistence of the “kids can’t pray in schools” myth is such an incredible frustration to me as someone for whom becoming an educator was and is a huge part of my morality. There is something beautiful about a space that welcomes everyone, and we all come together and learn from and with one another. Our public schools are one of the few spaces where this occurs.
Public schools — free public schools that are welcoming spaces for us all — not just for Christians (which in practice would actually translate to “the personal beliefs of this teacher whose belief system almost certainly differs in significant ways from yours”) — are essential for a democracy and for our ability to learn to be kind and loving across difference.
Please, please stop accepting/sharing this misinformation that kids can’t bring their own religious views to school. It’s precisely out of respect for each family’s own views that I would never have presumed to indoctrinate their children with my own religion. I expect and appreciate that right for every parent. This myth is very harmful in a time when public schools need our support. When we spread this rumor it plays into the hands of those who want to de-fund public schools for very undemocratic reasons. Let’s not feed the beast by accepting this blatant falsehood. By and large, our public schools are beautiful places where kindnesses and love abound. The schools and their teachers do not deserve to be criticized with this misinformation. They deserve our support, right now and always.