More than 50 years after the Supreme Court struck down the practice of state-sponsored prayers in public schools, Alabama lawmakers recently passed a bill that will restore the practice. Alabama State Representative Steve Hurst proposed setting aside 15 minutes at the start of each school day to have teachers give a verbatim reading of a congressional opening prayer.
Hurst’s argument of the legality of this practice is that Congress and the Alabama Legislature begin their days with a prayer, and if they do, public schools should too.
“If you are reading the prayer verbatim that was entered into the Congressional record, then how can this be unconstitutional?” Hurst said.
In the mid-1900s, the Supreme Court ruled state-sponsored prayers in school unconstitutional on the terms that it infringed upon the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Hurst said this mandated “prayer time” could be used for educational purposes, in that teachers could pick prayers that pertain to the day’s lesson. Additionally, if students do not want to partake in the daily prayer, they may excuse themselves from the lesson. But, in a state as conservative as Alabama, it would be hard to imagine that a young kid would feel comfortable excusing themselves from the prayer that most of their peers are probably partaking in.
It is not fair to give a child the ultimatum of participating in a prayer or not. This is a decision way too big that will probably just go over their heads anyways, and also depend on whatever their peers are doing. Such a practice would make a kid from a less religious family feel awkward around their more religious friends. Social pressures at young ages are enough, and there is no need to create laws that would bring religion into it.
Having a mandatory moment of silence during the day would be acceptable, however having a teacher read a verbatim prayer every day is just inappropriate. Instead of designating this time specifically to “prayer time,” kids would benefit much more if they were allotted daily downtime where they could sit and reflect instead. This way, the secular students can have time practice their faith in one corner while the non-religious students can sit and think in another.
This daily downtime could give kids a chance to mentally and emotionally regroup. It would give a hyper kid time to calm down, and a less social kid a break from social pressures.
If Hurst is adamant on allotting this time to prayer, the time shouldn’t be specified to just one religion. He should use this legislation as an opportunity to teach impressionable kids tolerance at a younger age, as well as open up the discussion about different religions. Such a daily practice would be better than not teaching kids about religion at all.
Another proposed legislation by Alabama lawmakers would allow students to initiate prayer in school as well as express their religious views in their work for class. A sponsor of this bill, Alabama State Representative Mack Butler, said such a law would give teachers clear guidance as to what kind of expression is and isn’t allowed in their classroom.
In regards to both of these proposed Alabama legislations — it is 2014 and these shouldn’t even be questions we are still addressing in our country. Religion should not be such a sensitive topic, and there shouldn’t be any legislation deciding where, when and how a child can pray. Entirely closing off the topic of religion or only discussing one belief is what breeds intolerance and, in the same regard, forcing it upon someone creates resentment.
If a child would like to pray during his or her down time, they should be allowed to pray. And if they would like to use that time to think about their classroom crush, then so be it. There should be no legislation about whether or not a child can or cannot pray during school hours — if anything, making laws about it just perpetuates the controversy.
So, with respect to the First Amendment, let’s keep it as secular as possible, Alabama, and let the kids spend free time the way they want to.