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Ask An Evangelical: School prayer and free speech

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What do you want to know about Evangelicalism? Pastor Rob Bryceson, of The Gathering House Church, and Elizabeth Backstrom, a member of The Gathering House, co-author this column. Submit your question here.

By Elizabeth Backstrom

Why is prayer in schools important?

Hi, thanks for writing. I think prayer in schools is important. Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s allowed in our schools today. What’s not allowed is so-called ‘school-sponsored prayer,’ banned by a Supreme Court decision in 1962 on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment. I recommend reading the memo and the original court decision.

President Clinton issued a memo on school prayer in 1995, reaffirming the right of students to pray in public schools and stating the following:

“I share the concern and frustration that many Americans feel about situations where the protections accorded by the First Amendment are not recognized or understood. This problem has manifested itself in our Nation’s public schools. It appears that some school officials, teachers and parents have assumed that religious expression of any type is either inappropriate, or forbidden altogether, in public schools.

As our courts have reaffirmed, however, nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door. While the government may not use schools to coerce the consciences of our students, or to convey official endorsement of religion, the government’s schools also may not discriminate against private religious expression during the school day.”

The memo offers some important caveats on religious expression and prayer in schools.

“The right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion free from discrimination does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate. Teachers and school administrators should ensure that no student is in any way coerced to participate in religious activity.”

Additionally, “public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture.”

Prayer in schools is important, even if you’re not religious, because it means we live in a country where free expression is valued and protected. Balancing that right with the rights of others not to have to partake in someone else’s religion is just as important, and I think schools have done an alright job walking this difficult line.

In some cases it’s argued that schools have been completely secularized, especially with regards to things like holiday celebrations and prayer. But to equitably celebrate the holidays and religions of our country, which is growing more diverse every day, a school would have to hold more than 20 types of prayer services just to accommodate the world’s major religions, and that’s not all inclusive. It’s a lot easier to not have school-sanctioned prayer and let students practice their own religions freely.

Elizabeth Backstrom

About Elizabeth Backstrom

Elizabeth Backstrom majored in journalism at Western Washington University and currently works as a content analyst and grant writer in Spokane. Her background is in newswriting and features, but if an overabundance of caffeine is consumed, she has been known to write a humor piece or two. Backstrom attended various Christian churches growing up in Spokane and currently attends First Covenant Church, an inner-city ministry in downtown Spokane.

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