We have prayer in public places very frequently: the Supreme Court, Congress, athletic events, state legislature meetings, and meetings of city councils and county commissions for example. So why should we not have prayer in public school classrooms? Because such prayers might allow religion to exercise undue influence over our children.
Both houses of the Congress of the United States begin each session with prayer. Members of a variety of religions are called upon to provide those prayers. Something very similar occurs in the US Supreme Court.
Before being called to active duty military, I served for 5 1/2 years on the city council of the city in which I live. We began each meeting with a prayer. On every occasion we asked for a volunteer from the audience to give a prayer. On some of those occasions the mayor or a member of the council was the person who volunteered to give the prayer.
If we have prayers in these public venues, why should we not allow prayer in public schools? The answer is that the having of such prayers may unduly influence children in the public schools toward an acceptance of religion.
Lest by the tenor of this post so far you think that I oppose prayer in public school, let me set the record straight. Banning prayer in public school is bunk. Allowing prayer in public school is under no circumstances an undue influence of religion on children. Rather, the banning of prayer in public schools not only takes from children an excellent opportunity to be more aware and understanding of other people's beliefs and feelings, it also unwittingly encourages general intolerance among public school students.
Here is a simple solution that would encourage school children to have a healthy respect for others' religious beliefs (and such a solution could easily be given the force of law) It would not be an undue influence of religion over public school students but would have a healthy inculcation for general tolerance of others beliefs. Let's assume a simple example of a class of 30 students. In other states the ratios would be different, but in Utah, the religious population ratios might be something like this:
- 20 of those students would be Latter-Day Saint
- 3 would be Catholic
- 3 would be Protestant
- 1 would be Jehovah Witness
- 1 would be Jewish
- 1 would be Muslim
- 1 would be Atheist
The societal ratio of religious population would not matter. Rather, the religious ratio in each class would be the determining factor. Students of any religion not wanting to participate would not have to participate. Students (or their parents) who do not support prayer in public schools (or for any other reason) could designate their assigned day as a day for no prayer.
Using this mechanism, the beliefs of all can be celebrated as having value, and tolerance for various people and points of view would become enshrined in the public square. As it stands now, the lack of tolerance for public devotion--especially in the public schools--engenders a tendency toward lack of tolerance for many other things.
Latter-Day Saint students in Utah usually make up a majority of each classroom's population, but this would not be the case in other States in the U.S. But the point is, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that every religion would be respected in the classroom regardless of its relative size with relationship to society.
Under such circumstances, would the religious (or non-religious) majority of children in a school or classroom have a tendency to tease their fellow students in the non-religious (or religious) minority? Would the members of the predominant religion tease their fellow students who belong to other religions? No. It is likely that there would be less teasing than there is--for other reasons--in public schools today. It is my expectation that carefully administered prayer in public schools (as outlined above) would have a tendency to reduce bullying and teasing of every kind.
Everyone believes something. Many individuals believe that there is a God, while some do not. But whatever we believe as to the existence or non-existence of God, and as to our relationship with other people is our religion. Yes, everyone believes something, and thus, everyone has religion. So the attempt to quash public expression of religion turns out to be a public elevation of the beliefs of those whose religion esteems there to be no God.
The very idea that we should not have prayer in public schools because it may exercise undue influence on children's minds is an undue influence on their minds by insinuating that religion is dangerous and undesirable. The greater danger is for children to be taught that religion is inappropriate and that intolerance for religion is appropriate.