It seems that the idea of religious freedom and expression has become lost on the people of America, particularly those who work in education, as is evidenced by a rash of stories over the past year pointing to students not being allowed to exercise their rights freely. The most recent example of this phenomenon comes from Oviedo, Florida, where a five-year-old girl claims that a school employee told her she was not allowed to pray over her lunch. The outrage sparked by the incident has caused many to ask the question of whether or not students should be allowed to pray in school. For those who are pondering the answer to this question, yes, students do indeed have the right to pray in school.
Religious liberties are protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which means that the federal government, despite having a monopoly on education, is bound by the law to not interfere with a child’s right to express or practice their religion, regardless of location. The Founding Fathers, when crafting the Constitution, and when discussing the “separation of church and state,” never intended for that idea to be a limit on religious practices in government or anywhere else. It was intended to keep the government from infringing on the rights of the people to practice their own faith without being mandated to do so by the government. This separation was not to keep faith out of the government, but the government out of the church. If, according to the Constitution, a senator or congressman has the right to pray during an assembly or before walking into session, which they do, why would a child not be allowed to pray over her lunch?
With that being said, schools should not be forcing children to participate in any type of religious expression, including prayer. There is a big difference between asking if students should be allowed to pray in school or if the school has the right to force everyone to pray. Many conservatives call for the government to put prayer back in the classroom, but this can be just as much a violation of someone’s rights as not allowing them to read their Bible or pray at lunch or recess. Ultimately, only local schools in their respective communities should be making decisions about whether or not to hold prayer at the beginning of the day. This is not a decision that the Constitution has granted the federal government power to make. Even if a local school decided to open in prayer each day, no student should be forced to participate.
Those who are opposed to the idea of allowing students to pray in school tend to talk about how they find the act offensive to their own personal views, using that as a means to push their own opinions and beliefs down on someone else. The truth of the matter is that no person has the right to not be offended. If a student sees a peer engaging in personal, private prayer, and is offended, that student has the right to look away or leave the room. They do not, however, have the right to tell their peer to stop expressing their religious liberties. The climate of today’s culture is one of being coddled, as many seem to be thin-skinned, unable to cope with individuals who hold differing views or who disagree with their value system. This includes the religious crowd as well. No one particular individual should be catered to over the other, as this will lead to someone’s rights being violated. An individual has the right to choose not to believe in God, but that right is not in any way superior to the right another has in choosing to believe.
The best solution to this problem, the one that will protect the rights of both believers and unbelievers, is to kick the federal government out of public education. They have no constitutional purview for being involved in education in any capacity, and when it is involved it leads to someone’s rights getting trampled on. With the federal government out of the picture, control over the schools would revert to local communities and the parents of the children who attend the schools. If a local community wanted its schools to have prayer, it could have prayer, so long as it did not force students to participate. If parents were uncomfortable with this decision, they could place their child in a different local school, rather than trying to force that institution to bend to their will.
The other part of solving the issue about students being allowed to pray in school is to uphold the Constitution. A child’s rights do not stop being protected simply because they enter the classroom. If the Constitution is upheld, students of all ages can choose to express their religious liberties, or choose not to express them, without fear of punishment or oppression.
Opinion by Michael Cantrell