Recently, I heard someone claim that America is going downhill because God has been taken out of the schools. This argument has been made since the U.S. Supreme Court banned state-sponsored school prayer over 50 years ago. But is it true?
Surveys of religious belief suggest less change than people may think, despite the prayer decisions. According to Gallup, 40 years ago, 83 percent of Americans believed the Bible was the word of God. Today, that percentage is 75 percent. Forty years ago, 40 percent of Americans said they had attended religious worship services in the past week. Today, the figure is 39 percent. In 1974, 62 percent of Americans believed religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems.” Today, 57 percent believe that. And, despite the fear that America is becoming atheistic, according to Gallup, today over 90 percent of Americans believe in God.
If the objective of not allowing state sponsored prayer in schools was to erode religious faith, it appears to be a failure. But that was not the objective. Rather, the purpose was to assure that the public school classroom is a welcoming place for all, regardless of religious belief, by disentangling religion and government.
The decisions regarding prayer in schools came about because of the failure of a local school district or state school board to remember that government-sponsored school prayer almost inherently discriminates against minorities. For example, in 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the recitation of a state prayer written by the state of New York because parents of Jewish students demonstrated that the prayer violated their religious beliefs. In a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case that banned student-led prayer before a Texas high school football game, the complaint was brought by two students — one Catholic and the other a Latter-day Saint — who objected to the derogation of their respective faiths by schoolteachers and the exclusion of religious minorities in the prayers.
But let’s say state sponsored school prayer was reinstituted. How exactly would that happen?
What type of prayer would be said? Does the teacher determine the prayer? If not the teacher, then perhaps there is a prayer written by the school board or the state education department. What kind of prayer would that be? Are we sure such a written prayer will reflect our religious values? Do we want our children daily saying a prayer that doesn’t correspond to our religious beliefs?
What if it is a generic written prayer that would offend no one? Perhaps that would be acceptable. But how does one write such a prayer? It could not include the name of Jesus Christ because Jewish children shouldn’t have to repeat a daily prayer to a person they don’t believe in, should they? But then such a prayer would be odd for children who believe in Christ. How about Muslim children? Shouldn’t the prayer mention Allah? Are they supposed to say a prayer that doesn’t mention Allah? Would that be a violation of their religious beliefs? Or atheists? Can we create a prayer to satisfy them?
Or do we just override these concerns because these people are in the minority? Shouldn’t majorities be able to impose their religious will on minorities in public schools? But what if we are part of the religious minority? What then?
How about if students take turns praying? Wouldn’t that solve the problem? Of course, many children don’t pray. How would they feel if others are offering prayers and they cannot? It might be good for them to learn how to pray, but isn’t that something that should be taught in the home or by a church, synagogue or mosque? Is it really government’s job to teach people to pray? Or in some religions, a minister prays for a congregation rather than individuals offering a public prayer. Are we then favoring those of a particular religion who offer individual spontaneous prayers? Should government do that?
This is why the court banned state-sponsored school prayer. It is the simplest solution in a religiously diverse society. And it doesn’t seem to have hurt religion either.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.