Prayer in schools: What god? Whose god? Who decides?

By Carole McNall

Once upon a time, a little girl was going to a public school. Her school began each day with all the students reciting The Lord’s Prayer. (This was a very long time ago.)

3561505_f260But the little girl was confused. She knew The Lord’s Prayer, but she had learned a very different ending. Is this the same prayer? she wondered. Was she remembering it wrong? All her classmates and her teacher were saying this other ending.

So she asked her mother. And her mother, who knew about these things and many others, told the little girl there were actually two versions of The Lord’s Prayer. One was the version she was hearing in school. The other, which was also right, was the version she had carefully learned.

Her mother even had a solution to what to do about this different ending. “Just say ‘Amen’ where you always have,” she told the little girl, “and let everyone else finish it the way they’ve learned.”

And the little girl was no longer confused. She used her mother’s wise solution until one day Something Happened and they no longer began the school day with The Lord’s Prayer.

Much later, she learned that Something was a Supreme Court decision that ruled prayer in schools was a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

t-he-lords-prayer-1-638Sometime after that, she and her brother were looking back on their school days. The conversation bent and turned and somehow arrived at the question of The Lord’s Prayer.

Her brother, who hadn’t asked their mother, said he’d spent a long time convinced that he was saying the prayer wrong. That made the now not-so-little girl sad, picturing her little brother thinking he was the only one in a whole classroom who didn’t know the right prayer.

I think of that little girl (yes, you are guessing her name) any time I read a quote like this one, from tonight’s local paper: Speaking on a decision to hang a plaque reading “In God we trust” in the legislative chambers of the county next to mine, a legislator said, “I just think it’s too bad we can’t … put God back in our schools. We’ve obviously taken him out, and he needs to return.”

Let me translate that for you: “We can’t dictate that every one in school should honor the same God with exactly the same words we would use, so we will assume God is nowhere to be found in schools.”

And this: “We insist that the only proper way to honor God is through our chosen words and the only God worth honoring is the one we worship.”

I was in school when that Supreme Court decision ended prayer in public schools. It didn’t prevent me from breathing a quiet prayer before a test that was worrying me or before I was supposed to do something in gym that I suspected was going to be a fiasco. I’ve never done a survey, but I doubt I’m the only student who quietly sought divine help, then or now.

So perhaps the Supreme Court didn’t actually banish God from schools. Perhaps what it actually did was to tell schools they couldn’t teach their students there is only one proper set of words to use to honor God and only one God worthy of that honor.

That decision may make some legislators unhappy. But it will save some little girls and little boys from wondering if their parents had taught them the wrong ideas about God.

Carole McNall, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University, teaches media law.

2 comments on “Prayer in schools: What god? Whose god? Who decides?

  1. the church and state need to be separate, or you might end up with something like what Islam does. plus no one should be forced to do other religions tasks. it is not American. freedom of religion means not forcing and allowing different thoughts and creating more individualism. that is why we are the most progressive country, but we are losing this battle to people trying to force their behavior on someone else.

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