Everyone has heard of the separation of church and state. It is one of the founding principles of the United States of America. We allow everyone to practice the religion of his or her choice peacefully and freely. However, when it comes to prayer in schools, there is a very fine line between what is acceptable and what is not. Recently, a law has been passed, suspended, and then reinstated in Illinois requiring a moment of silence every day in schools. While this is not supposed to be a religious time so much as a moment of silent reflection to meditate upon your day, it has sparked some controversy about prayer in schools.
What's the issue?
The issue of prayer in schools has been debated since the early 1900's. This long standing debate has taken many forms, but the question has always been the same: should students be allowed to pray in public schools, even when church and state must remain separate? In the early 1900's, it was very common for public schools to open with a Christian prayer or a reading from the Bible. In 1962 and 1963, two Supreme Court decisions - Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp, respectively - ruled in favor of religious minorities who had objected against overt Christianity in public schools. These rulings are what set up the current barring of state-sponsored prayer in public schools.
In 1971, in the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Lemon test was established which helps schools decide what is constitutional and what is not when it comes to prayer and religion in schools. According to the Lemon test, all things sponsored by public schools must have a purpose that is secular in nature, must not progress or hold back religion, and must keep church and state separate. Over the years, many people have tried to make prayer in schools legal again, and laws like the one in Illinois that require a moment of silence put the onus on the student and make prayer a private activity rather than a public one in the classroom.
What are the benefits?
Prayer has many obvious benefits for those who participate in it. Praying privately can be a form of meditation, a way to calm the mind and focus before a big test or presentation, and a way to pause and consider the consequences of an action. Group prayer can help students feel as if they belong in the culture of the school, as well as help calm grief after a particularly sad event such as the death of a fellow classmate. Students do need all of these things in their lives, though it is arguable whether or not this action belongs in school or outside it.
What are the drawbacks?
One of the major arguments against making prayer in school legal is that it is already legal for the most part. Students are allowed to voluntarily and silently pray in school whenever they want, as long as they are not trying to involve or "convert" other students. Another argument is that public schools are supported by taxpayers, and that should ensure that all students, no matter what their religious affiliations, feel comfortable going to school there.
What should we do?
Making private, voluntary prayer legal is a great compromise to this debate. Students should be able to pray quietly and individually if that is what comforts or calms them. Public prayer, however, can make religious minorities feel uncomfortable and pressured to join, and that can affect their studies which is the last thing any teacher, administrator, or parent wants.