Prayer In School

A parish Priest instructs children at St Mark's Church, Victoria Docks, Silvertown, London, England, UK, 1944
In the early 1960's, the United States Supreme Court, in two landmark cases, Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), ruled against state sponsored prayer in public schools. From this point on, public schools could no longer engage in school-initiated prayer, Bible reading, or any other religious activities on public school campus during school hours.  This is widely regarded as the time when the U.S. federal government "kicked God out of public schools."

Prior to these cases, practises varied from state to state, even from school district to school district.  However, as a general rule, going back to the late 1800's, public school children in the United States were required to read from Protestant Bibles and recite Protestant prayers, while in class, even if some of the children were Catholic, Jewish or Mormon.  The Protestant nature of American public school policy was quite obvious, and was contested by Catholic parents as far back as 1890 (Weiss v. District Board).

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) was
an Anglican convert to Catholicism, and
the first native-born American to be canonized
by the Roman Catholic Church. She was the
founder of America's Catholic school systems.
The religious state of affairs in public schools prior to the 1960's was anything but blissful.  I suppose if one was a Protestant parent, it was all rather convenient, having a public school that would reinforce on weekdays what was taught in your Protestant church on Sundays.  Catholic parents were not nearly as pleased.  This is because Catholic school children were frequently the targets of Protestant proselytism, not only from their peers, but also from teachers at times.  Bible readings and prayers, crafted to neatly fit Protestant theology, served as powerful tools in the gradual religious deconstruction of Catholic public school children.  It is in this environment, the "go along to get along" mentality was formed in the minds of young Catholic Americans, which explains a great deal of liberal "Cafeteria Catholicism" in America's culture today.  Let us not forget the infamous Blaine Amendments, which were designed to cut off any potential public funding of Catholic schools.  Thirty-eight of fifty states, including my home state of Missouri, adopted these heinous legislative instruments of discrimination, which at the time were specifically directed against Catholic families who opposed the Protestantising of their children in America's public schools.  The idea behind them was to insure that no public funding, or any kind, could ever be directed toward a "sectarian" (read "Catholic") school.  So this made it even more difficult for working Catholic parents to pull their kids out of public school and place them in Catholic school.  The way the Blaine Amendments were originally set up, in many states, public funding could possibly go to non-religious private schools, or even to nondenominational Protestant schools, but not to Catholic schools, because those were considered to be "sectarian."

Then in 1962 and 63, everything changed.  The U.S. Supreme Court effectively ruled that public schools were to become a "religious-free zone."  Schools could no longer organise prayers or Bible reading. Suddenly the Blaine Amendments went from being specifically anti-Catholic to becoming anti-Christian and anti-religion in general.  America's Protestantised public schools had just abruptly come to an end, and the gradual transformation into militant secular institutions was under way.  Within just thirty years, public schools went from promoting Protestantism to opposing all religions -- especially Christianity.

Now I came of age in the 1980s, and I remember seeing television evangelists decry the 1962 and 63 Supreme Court rulings as a harbinger of the apocalypse.  I remember them calling upon their viewers to write their congressmen demanding a change in the law to go back to the way things were.  It never came about. So by the 1990s, these same television evangelists were content to simply call for a "moment of silence" every morning, so public school children could take it upon themselves to pray - quietly.

Being a person who tries to accept information for what it is, and not somebody who wants to hold out hoping for the impossible, I'm afraid I have some bad news for my fellow Christians out there.  The secularisation of America's public schools is now complete and permanent.  So long as the United States federal government exists, there will never be any trace of organised Christianity in public schools -- never again...  Never.  It's over people.  Give it up.  This battle is lost.

Occasionally, I still see a Christian, here or there, blurt out the old mantra -- "We need to get prayer back in schools!"  It's a nice thought, but it's also a futile one.  If there is every going to be organised prayer in school again (which I seriously doubt), then it will be some kind of generalised non-specific prayer that has nothing to do with Christianity whatsoever.  If there is anyone out there still holding out hope for "putting God back in public schools," you're dreaming a fairy tale.  It's not going to happen and you're wasting your time.

It seems to me a great deal of time and energy has been spent in the Evangelical Protestant world to lift the anti-religion restrictions in public school. Many of the nation's problems are often linked to these Supreme Court cases in the sermons of these television evangelists.  Maybe they're on to something.  Maybe they're right, but as I said, it really doesn't matter, because as long as Washington D.C. exists, there will never again be anything resembling Christianity taught in public schools.

Simultaneously, I've noticed another glaring problem.  I live in Springfield Missouri, which boasts itself to be the "buckle" of the Bible Belt.  In Springfield Missouri, there are more churches per capita than in most cities in America.  Yes, that's right.  If you measure religion by the number of churches, then Springfield Missouri ranks, hands down, as having one of the highest number of churches (per person) of all American cities. Using that standard alone, we could say that Springfield Missouri is one of the most religious cities in America.  There are literally over a thousand churches in a city of only about 160,000 people.  That's a church per capita ratio of about 1 church for every 114 people (or 1:114).  Now of all those churches I can tell you there are exactly seven Catholic churches in the city (if we include the local SSPX chapel).  Seven out of over a thousand churches isn't much, so you can begin to get a feel for how heavily Protestant the region is.

Now of those seven Catholic churches, four of them have grades K-8 schools.  There is also one Catholic high school in town, which serves as a (grades 9-12) hub for all the Catholic elementary schools.  Now let's stop and think about this.  There are seven Catholic parishes, and five Catholic schools (including the high school).  That means that the Catholic school-per-parish percentage is over 70%.  For every seven Catholic parishes, there are five Catholic schools.  That's a pretty high ratio!  Now cost an affordability of these schools is another thing.  Granted, the Catholic school district does offer financial aid to Catholic families who cannot afford it, but that doesn't always meet the full amount of aid needed to actually make attendance possible for every Catholic family.  This is a serious problem that needs to be worked on, but it's not for lack of effort.  There is no easy solution, they are trying, and those in charge should be given credit for that.

I am aware of at least one Lutheran school in Springfield and a handful of Evangelical Christian schools, however, when you consider the number of churches per capita in the city, Springfield has a serious problem. I'm using my city as an example here, because the same story can be repeated in just about every other city of reasonable size.

In Springfield, we have a handful of mega-churches.  I'll go ahead and name some.  There is James River Assembly, which actually exists outside the city limits, but most of the members are Springfield residents. There is also James River West Campus, which is affiliated with the former, also outside the city limits, but with a majority of Springfield members.  There is Second Baptist Church, within the city limits on the east side of town.  There is Ridgecrest Baptist Church also within the city limits on the south-west side of town. There is Central Assembly of God up near the city hall.  There is Northpoint Church on the north side of town.  There are many, many more of similar size.  All of these would qualify as mega-churches, even by the standards of a large city.  To the best of my knowledge however, (and somebody correct me if I'm wrong), none of these mega-churches have a (K-8) full-time school.  None of them, to the best of my knowledge, have a full-time (9-12) high school. None of them!  Not a single one!  They certainly have the money to do it.  Funding is not an issue at all.  That I am sure of.  So am I the only person who sees a problem with this?

At some point, churches, especially mega-churches, have to ask themselves what they're giving back to the community.  It irritates me to no end when I see a mega-church pastor tell his congregation that we need to get prayer back in school, when he himself refuses to get school back in church!

Prayer in school?  How about school in church?  Isn't that the way it should be anyway?  It seems to me that a lot of Evangelical Protestants want it both ways.  They want to have their high-dollar mega-churches on the one hand, and then have the state reinforce their religious values on the other hand.  Look, I think it's awful what the Supreme Court did in 1962 and 1963.  I think it's terrible they took religion out of school, even if it was (for the most part) Protestant religion.  Protestant religion is infinitely better than no religion at all, and I wouldn't have a problem with Protestant organised prayers and readings if that was still available in public school.  Even though I currently send my children to a Catholic school, I wouldn't even have a problem sending my children to a Protestant church school, if it was economically advantageous to do so.  (It's not, but if it were, I would consider it.)  I can handle the Protestant thing.  Heck!  I used to be one for the first thirty years of my life.  I just find it shocking that a city, which boasts no less than three Protestant universities, has an abysmally low number of Protestant elementary and high schools.  Then some of the pastors of these Protestant churches have the audacity to say, "we need to get prayer back in public schools."  Hey, I've got a better idea.  Why don't you get your kids out of public schools, and start a religious school at your local church.  Then they can pray all they want, and you can lead the prayers, Bible readings and religious instruction. How's that for an idea?

Here is a good example of what I'm talking about.  My mother-in-law attends a Baptist church in Battlefield Missouri.  It's called First Baptist Church of Battlefield.  It is by no means a "mega-church."  It's not very big at all.  I would say it's about "average" size. However, this "average" size Baptist church, in a small suburban bedroom community, has managed to start a K-12 school that is full-time, and supplies a diploma that is comparable to just about any private or religious school.  Pastor Ray Smith informed me that the program implemented at First Baptist Church of Battlefield is a comprehensive Christian program, that is fully duplicable, and "just about anyone could do it."  He also told me he would be willing to share information to help any pastor in the region start his own similar school program.  Now, if you ask me, this is one Protestant church that is doing it right, and I applaud them!  I am very impressed with what they're doing and it is a perfect example of what we need to see more of in the Springfield Missouri area -- or anywhere in America for that matter.  I highly recommend this church's model as one possible example of how it could be done.

Let's face it, when churches own up to their responsibility of educating children, the whole "prayer in school" thing becomes a moot point.  It's tragic that things happened the way they did in America's public schools but it doesn't have to end in tragedy.  The secularisation of public schools is a GRAND OPPORTUNITY for America's churches to step up to the plate and take back what was rightfully theirs to begin with.  The beauty of the whole thing is; it won't require any election, no political action, and no protests or civic action.  All it requires is churches to be both churches and schools again -- just like it was in the "good ol' days."  All it takes is a little will power, prayer and commitment.  I hope this article will be viewed not as a condemnation of any particular church or denomination, but rather a call-to-action for all churches of all denominations.  It's time to stop preaching and do something!

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