Thursday, September 1, 2011

Culture Wars: Prayers and Public School

I work at a church in Hernando, MS as a music director, and the local high school is a few blocks down the road from our church. Many of the youth in our church attend that high school and adjacent middle school, and there is one thing on their mind right now: the freedom to pray publicly in our public schools. In the middle of August, the Wisconsin-based freethinking organization Freedom From Religion Foundation received an anonymous complaint from a DeSoto County School family regarding the district's tradition of letting a student lead a (presumably) Christian prayer before each sporting event. FFRF wrote to the district's superintendent asking that the district ban these prayers per several rulings from the US Supreme Court, and now, many DeSoto-based families are raising Cain on the issue. Grassroots efforts are attempting a flash-Lord's Prayer, if you will, following the national anthem at the schools' football games, and another local effort entitled Take a Knee will meet at the DeSoto Courthouse to protest this rule. Even churches from beyond our region, such as First Baptist Dallas, are weighing in on the issue.
Of course, this is not what I would call a "debate" as the commentator names it, nor do I think that this is fair, unbiased reporting. I've heard from several people the argument that the Constitution does not guarantee freedom from religion, and therefore rulings like the one that affects DeSoto County Schools are unconstitutional. I don't know if I agree with a statement like that. Hear these words from Thomas Jefferson, written in The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.
"That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or good, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief: but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise dimish, enlarge, or effect their civil capacities."
Religion is a highly personal and touchy subject, and the public school is a place funded by your local, state, and federal tax dollars where people of all creeds come for an education. Without making an official written or verbal statement, those funds can quietly sanction an official religion in your school if only one faith's prayers are invoked; that would violate your First Amendment rights by establishing or promoting one religion. And honestly, do you want your government financing your faith? I don't. Render unto Congress what is Congress', and stay out of my church.

That said, the democratic experiment works - in theory - because the voice of the people decides the law of the land. Therefore, if the majority of people in your constituency are Christian, should not therefore your public school, funded by your predominantly Christian populace, allow Christian prayer? Therein lies the blessing and curse of democracy. The majority speaks and makes policy; the minority must go along for the ride. Who protects the atheist minority's right to not practice religion? You can't tell the atheist student to pack up and go to another school; most private schools are parochial. But can a small minority tell the majority what to do? Perhaps we can find some kind of middle ground. Since a public school is a secular, multi-faith environment, should not a Jewish student, a Muslim teacher, and an atheist member of administration all be allowed, at one point or another, to offer some kind of invocation?

On a side note, I am a choral director, and much of the music available for me to perform is sacred, even Christian. If I worked in a public high school, would I have the freedom in the name of academic growth to program a Bach cantata on my program? On the one hand, such a work would expose my students to the music of a watershed composer who played a vital role in the development of the Western musical tradition; on the other hand, such a piece would be unmistakably Christian - Lutheran, at that - and could offend non-Christians. In the classroom, where do you draw the line?

The people behind the Take a Knee campaign are citing II Corinthians 7:14 for their work: "if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." I never liked the use of this verse to rally a secular nation. Use this verse to rally the Church, where the people in that institution are ostensibly God's chosen people. Above all, rally in love. To call the chairwoman of FFRF a "skank from Wisconsin" is not written in love or humility (that comment was left on one of the previously linked news stories). Your students are not bound for hell or a purpose-less adulthood for attending a school where public, open prayer is banned, and your students are not forbidden from forming their own prayer groups. They cannot, by rule of this land, subject everybody to Christian prayer under the banner of DeSoto County Schools. And let us be honest: if the inability to pray over a school loudspeaker angers you more than your county's homelessness or unemployment rates, then I would suggest that your priorities are in the wrong place. Humble yourselves indeed.

Finally, our schools should not be such a treasured place of worship that to lose the non-existent right to public prayer would cause such an uproar. The church is to be our base of praise. Our own homes are to be our places of prayer. When we Christians pray in a public place like a school, a courthouse, or a house of the governing body (and we will), let us pray discreetly in these places. Our Father in heaven can do without the pomp and circumstance; He wants our humble hearts.

O God, may we not be a loud, proud, or arrogant people; may we be a people that prodigiously shares loves and relentlessly seeks justice in the name of Jesus.

Until next time,

1 comment:

M said...

We used to have a moment of silence at the beginning of our games so that everyone could pray, think, send good thoughts, whatever they wanted to do in a respectful manner. It was helpful for everyone, I think, and allowed for a moment of reflection and even that extra second to get prepared mentally and physically for the night ahead!

Also, I very much dislike anonymous sources. Though I understand fully the idea behind it, anonymous sources are the reason many decent teachers have lost their jobs over something as silly as a vacation picture at a biergarten. We need to require the same vetting of anonymous sources as referenced sources.