True or false: Students can pray in public school any time they want

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True or false? Students and anybody else in a public school have a right to quietly pray any time they want.

It’s true, but you wouldn’t know it if you listen to lawmakers in Virginia who, according to this Post story, are pushing legislation that would “codify students’ right to pray before, during and after school; organize prayer groups, clubs and events; wear religious clothing or accessories; and express religious viewpoints at school forums.”

Critics oppose the legislation on several grounds; they say that students already have a right to pray quietly whenever they want and to express religious viewpoints in school, and that supporters are seeking to “enshrine” Christianity in public life.

 Here’s what true about school prayer, from Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, a First Amendment scholar who writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life. 

The claim that public schools are hostile to Christians … isn’t true.

Truth be told, students of all faiths are actually free to pray alone or in groups during the school day, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others. Of course, the right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion does not necessarily include the right to preach to a captive audience, like an assembly, or to compel other students to participate.

Visit public schools anywhere in America today and you’re likely to see kids praying around the flagpole, sharing their faith with classmates, reading scriptures in free time, forming religious clubs, and in other ways bringing God with them through the schoolhouse door each day.

As for celebrating Christmas, students are free to say “Merry Christmas,” give Christmas messages to others, and organize Christmas devotionals in student Christian clubs.

It’s true that some public school officials still misunderstand (or ignore) the First Amendment by censoring student religious expression that is protected under current law. But when challenged in court, they invariably lose.

In fact, contrary to culture-war mythology, there is more student religious speech and practice in public schools today than at any time in the past 100 years.

When politicians demonize the courts for banning God from schools, they count on public confusion about the First Amendment distinction between government speech promoting religion, which the establishment clause prohibits, and student speech promoting religion, which the free-exercise and free-speech clauses protect.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that kids can’t pray in school. What the Court has done — and continues to do — is to strike down school-sponsored prayers and devotional exercises as violations of religious liberty.

As a result of those decisions, school officials may not impose prayers, or organize prayer events, or turn the school auditorium into the local church for religious celebrations.

Students, however, aren’t the government; they can — and often do — openly pray and share their faith in public schools.

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · February 20, 2014

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