Prayer never left public schools

May 25, 1999|By Francis O. Thompson

HAVING recently retired from a 30-year teaching career, I can attest to the presence of prayer in public schools. I have seen students pray before tests, before lunch in the cafeteria, before athletic events, before musical and dramatic performances. I have seen student-led prayer groups meet before and after school.

I have more than once heard it said that God has been thrown out of public schools -- as if He were a recalcitrant student. This is some pusillanimous god, let me tell you, expelled from school by a bunch of Supreme Court justices. The God that most of us believe in isn't subject to such temporal powers.

A powerful subject

Some people even believe that public schools prohibit the mention of God. Not so. How can a teacher teach history, literature, philosophy, music history, art -- almost anything -- without discussing God, people's perceptions of Him and religious motivations and movements?

For example, I taught the Bible during every year of my 25 years of teaching high school English. In a chronological study of British literature, how could I omit an in-depth unit on the King James translation of the Bible, the most important and influential of all English books?

In the study of American literature, how could I approach Puritan literature (and the founding of our country) without addressing the Bible and its importance to our early settlers?

I required my seniors to have their own copies of the King James translation for classwork and homework. Not once in all those years did I receive a complaint from a parent even though not all of my students were Jewish or Christian. Not once did an administrator forbid me from teaching the Bible as literature.

Ignorance of the law

Occasionally, there are news reports of school officials here or there disciplining a student for carrying a Bible or wearing a cross. But such overreaction usually results from ignorance of the law or fear of the repercussions from his or her superiors.

When it comes to religion, the law is clear on what public school employees cannot do. They cannot proselytize or require a period of prayer or Bible (or Koran) reading. It is not the job of the public schools to make students religious, nor to persuade them of the virtue of prayer. These are the jobs of the family and religious institutions.

To ask for organized prayer or any other organized religious activity in the public schools is to ask government to further religious belief. I suspect that people who argue for organized public school prayer are generally disdainful of big government. So why do they believe that government would be effective in this area?

Prayer is alive and well in public schools without the ham-handed interference of government. Thank God.

Francis O. Thompson, who taught English for 25 years at Dulaney Valley High School, writes from Stewartstown, Pa.

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