Religion as A Cultural Identifier

Prayer in School: Religion as A Cultural Identifier

Prayer in schools is a controversial topic in K-12 education due to the polarizing nature of the debate for and against. The reasons that prayer is controversial is because of religious rights and the use of time in schools. Human rights and religious freedom has been a part of the conversation since schools first opened in the United States. America was founded on religious freedom and to get away from what our forefather’s thought were tyrannical practices by the King of England. It had something more to do with the pursuit of happiness. No one wanted others telling them what to believe and how to practice their religion in home nor school. If prayer were included as part of school, there could be a fear of others telling the public’s children what faith to practice. Time is also an important commodity in schools. Time is something most teachers agree that they do not have enough of. Add to this the fact that the use of time is often used as a bargaining chip between school districts and teacher unions. Time is something that is negotiated. For example, days off, non-workdays, and the number of minimum days are things that get negotiated between bargaining units and school districts. The controversial issue has to do with how students and staff might use their time while in public school. It becomes more controversial when the practice of prayer involves an encroachment on instructional minutes or adding time to the day. This can affect the time a teacher and students are able to go home. Instruction is something generally managed between administration and certificated staff. Instructional minutes must be accounted for on an annual basis. For example, in California there is a minimum of 180 minutes that must be provided to students in kindergarten. and what they are dedicated to being used for, teaching the Common Core State Standards. If prayer were added it could extend the day. This could affect future teaching and students by further taking away or adding time to the school day if everyone were allowed to pray. Since the prayer is not part of the standards it makes it controversial. Another reason why prayer in school is a difficult subject is because of what the United States Constitution says about separation of church and state. More specifically, the first amendment in the Bill of Rights says that Congress is not supposed to make any laws regarding establishing a religion. Most people interpret this to mean separation of church and state.

The cultural identifier related to prayer in schools is religion. Religion is a faith-based practice taken up by a group of people who are compelled to pray, preach, and practice their faith towards a higher power. Religion is something that many Americans participate in and regularly attend church in order to congregate and dedicate their time and sometimes money (i.e. tithe). Religion normally extends from the church to home. In fact, many hotels in the United States still have bibles in the dressers of their hotel rooms. Religion has to do with a person’s relationship with their God or higher power. Christians pray to Jesus Christ, Muslims pray to Allah, and Jewish people pray to God. The connection between prayer in school and religion is that one is not generally allowed in the other. Most public schools prohibit prayer from being done during the instructional day. But most religions require prayer. This means that there is a problem in terms of our freedom to practice prayer in school. If social justice is about equity and fairness of privilege and opportunity, then social justice’s role in all of this essentially means determining when prayer might be ok to practice in school. Perhaps it is okay to do so during recess or break time, and/or after school during a club’s time to meet. Religious clubs allowed to take place after school on a voluntary and parent permission type basis are solutions that exist to solving the prayer in school issue.

American history plays an important role in the prayer in schools and religion. One key historical event that affected prayer in school is the Supreme Court case in 2021 of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District where a coach was allowed to offer a prayer after a football game. The gentleman involved in this court battle lost his job as a football coach for kneeling after a game and saying a private prayer on the field in front of players. Mr. Kennedy sued in federal court alleging that the school district violated his First Amendment Rights. What was upheld by the court was that one could personally engage in a personal religious observance. The court ruled that the Constitution does not mandate nor permit government from suppressing our religious expression. Mr. Kennedy’s case highlighted the possible importance of prayer space (Stern & Shillitoe, 2019). It we do not make it safe to pray then there will be those, like this football coach, who run the risk of getting caught and unfairly judged or punished. Also, in Maine there was a court case of Carson v. Makin where the judges ruled in favor of private religious schools receiving public funding. This historical event dealt with tuition assistance for parents. More specifically, for parents who wanted the state of Maine to provide financial help for their children to attend private religious schools. The parents felt that the state was discriminating from their choice of schools and won the case in court. The First Amendment protects against Americans being penalized for free exercise of religion. This court ruling helped parental efforts to be able to choose what schools their children could attend. Religious schools are fortified by this effort. This affects prayer because students in private religious schools pray every day and attend church while on campus. The most significant historical event involving prayer in school’s dates back to 1962 in the court case of Engel v. Vitale where it was decided that schools could not force students to recite a state-written prayer. This involved government being told that they could not draft formal prayers for students to say in any government sponsored religious program. The court case said that it was unconstitutional for public school to lead students in prayer was key. This was viewed as a victory for those that support religious freedom and hurt America’s religious tradition.

Those in favor of prayer in school claim that it would lead to less bullying and more tolerance. There might be less bullying is students prayed for one another. Prayer has the potential for healing and making students more emotionally intelligent. It also has the potential to develop empathy. Students who have empathy are more likely to be compassionate. It is a value driven claim that puts a lot of stock in this idea that prayer is righteous and makes us better people. Tolerance could be increased if students felt and developed compassion for one another thru prayer. Prayer in schools also may have the benefit of teaching humility to students. When one prays, they are praying to a higher power. Prayer involves an admittance that there is an entity more powerful than oneself. Prayer can have a humbling effect if we are willing to accept that we are not in control of everything. In fact, according to a meta-analysis students who prayed tended to do better in school (Jeynes, 2020).

Those opposed to prayer in schools say that it could have the opposite affect and highlight differences. This might make us less tolerable of each other. Those opposed also say that prayer in school could have a negative side effect of forcing others to believe the way their peers believe (i.e. peer pressure may make certain students start following a religion that they did not choose for themselves). When prayer is added to schools it has the potential for the adults in charge to share their religious beliefs and influence children. This may violate children’s rights and the views of the parents who are not in attendance. Parents may not want their children to be told how and what to believe. Prayer opens this up as a possibility. Normally, prayer is associated with a specific religion.

Prayer in schools affects teaching and learning because teachers are human and have biases. Each teacher is entitled to their own beliefs and religion. However, it may be difficult for teachers to separate their biases if prayer is part of schools. This controversial issue is similar to politics in schools. Teachers are not allowed to campaign in class for a specific political party nor candidate. Prayer in schools has the potential for involving the same dynamic. Teaching and prayer might naturally bring up the topic of God creating earth versus Darwinism and survival of the fittest. Prayer can affect teaching by forcing teachers to select a side and defend it, whether they believe in God or not. Prayer affects learning because it includes a mindset and belief system. If a student is Christian and believes in God, then they may explain a topic or complete an assignment from a certain perspective. Their learning may be affected by prayer in that if a science lesson teaches nature versus nurture, then their convictions may be tested. This could lead to doubt and the student going home confused asking questions of their family. It has the potential for more disruption in the home and at school. This is why we must analyze this issue from all angles and consider multiple viewpoints (Shillitoe & Strhan, 2020).















Shillitoe, R., & Strhan, A. (2020). “Just leave it blank” non-religious children and their

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