Teacher-led Prayer: Unconstitutional but Appropriate?

Teacher Praying

The disconnect between students’ knowledge about the law and their commitment to the law and its underlying principles extends far beyond the realm of religious freedom to other rights.

By Benjamin Marcus

There is no question that Americans could use a lesson or two on the Constitution and its amendments. The Freedom Forum Institute’s 2019 State of the First Amendment survey found that only 29 percent of respondents could name freedom of religion as one of the five freedoms safeguarded by the First Amendment. To protect religious freedom, we must educate the public about our inalienable rights.

But what should educators and legal literacy advocates do when people know the law but do not care if authority figures violate it? That is the question raised by a recent survey of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, conducted by the Pew Research Center.

On Oct. 3, Pew published the results of a national survey of American teenagers designed to provide insight into religious activities conducted in American public schools. Their findings are a treasure trove for those who care about religion and education, not least because it is the first large-scale, national survey that asks teens themselves about their experiences with religion in schools.

Some findings might not surprise readers. For example, 53 percent of teens report that they often or sometimes see other students wearing clothing or jewelry with religious symbolism such as the hijab, turban, cross, or Star of David. And 39 percent of respondents say they often or sometimes see other students pray before sporting events.

But another finding should shock Americans committed to religious freedom: 29 percent of students simultaneously know that teacher-led prayer is unconstitutional, but still think it is appropriate.

On the one hand, teachers can be proud of the fact that 82 percent of teens in public schools correctly answer the question, “According to rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, is a public school teacher permitted to … lead class in prayer?” The answer is, of course, no — though the U.S. Department of Education has affirmed that student-led, student-initiated prayers are allowed when conducted alone or in groups before, during or after the school day, as long as they do not disrupt student activities or teacher instruction.

However, 41 percent of teens say that it is “appropriate” for a teacher to lead a class in prayer. Across multiple religious groups (e.g. evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, Catholic and unaffiliated), fewer students say teacher-led prayer is constitutional than appropriate. For example, only 18 percent of evangelical and 13 percent of unaffiliated students say incorrectly that teacher-led prayer is constitutional, but 68 percent of evangelical and 25 percent of unaffiliated students say that teacher-led prayer is appropriate.

Memorizing the five freedoms of the First Amendment will not solve this problem. The data shows that an encouraging percentage of American public school students already know that teachers should not lead students in prayer. Perhaps teachers have covered the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in Engel v. Vitale in government or U.S. history courses. Or perhaps students learn about the prohibition against teacher-led prayer from the media, parents or religious communities. In any case, lack of knowledge is not the issue.

The problem is more fundamental: students do not seem to understand why it is important to preserve a religious freedom principle as foundational as the non-establishment of religious practice by public schools.

Students may have different reasons for finding teacher-led prayer appropriate but unconstitutional. Some religious students might think that the U.S. Supreme Court wrongly prohibited teacher-led prayer and they might consider it good to defy the court to protect religion. Other students might be more ambivalent. Perhaps they know the rule about teacher-led prayer, but they do not think enforcement — or lack thereof — affects their lives.

The reality could not be more different. Upholding religious freedom protections is in the interest of every student, whether religious or not, in a country that is rapidly becoming a nation of religious minorities. And the careful balance struck by the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment — which has compelled the court to strike down teacher-led prayer — actually protects religious communities from harmful government interference or cooptation. Plus, religious communities can never be sure that a government body will not write prayers that contradict their sincerely held beliefs.

So how can educators close the gap between students’ knowledge and commitment to religious freedom?

Students should learn why the current constitutional order matters. To do this, legal literacy education will need to move beyond the memorization of constitutional amendments and court cases. Teachers should help students understand why religious freedom protections — like the prohibition against teacher-led prayer — benefit people of all religions and none. And students should learn about the negative social and political consequences of religious freedom violations. Inquiry-driven coursework should offer students opportunities to explore cases, both historical and contemporary, which demonstrate why students should protect the rights safeguarded by the First Amendment. Without the ability to articulate why religious freedom matters, students will not care whether or not people in authority transgress longstanding rules protecting it.

And, in the spirit of the Williamsburg Charter, published on the 200th anniversary of Virginia’s call for a Bill of Rights, students should learn that their rights are best guarded when they accept the responsibility to protect those rights for others, including those with whom they strongly disagree.

Pew has offered a glimpse of students’ attitudes toward religious freedom in schools, but there is so much more to learn. I suspect that the disconnect between students’ knowledge about the law and their commitment to the law and its underlying principles extends far beyond the realm of religious freedom to other rights. Thankfully we do not need more data to start improving the way we teach about the laws that bind us out of many into one.

Benjamin P. Marcus is religious literacy specialist at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. His email address is: bmarcus@freedomforum.org.

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