Why I Am Against Instituting School Prayer

Mike Huckabee November/December 1999 It is this concern for our culture that spurs calls for a reinstitution of prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Given my church background, some are surprised to hear my response to such requests. While I understand the anger and frustration many feel toward the federal courts and those who use the courts to oust religion from the public square, I question the wisdom of the means proposed to accomplish what would be a noble end.

There may be no greater instrument than faith when it comes to instilling in young people a sense of eternal purpose and an appreciation for morality and truth. However, people of faith would be wise to proceed with caution when trying to sue a government school system to achieve such goals.

Still, there is no question activist judges and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have intimidated teachers and school administrators to the point that the Bible is no longer welcome in many classrooms and students feel prohibited from praying. Teachers have been harassed for having Bibles on their desks. Catholic students have been told to stop praying the rosary on the bus. Speeches by the Founders have been edited to remove all scriptural references from our public school textbooks.

I sense the recent calls for school prayer are more a reaction to a growing frustration over the effective intimidation tactics used against school administrators to stop religious activity on school campuses and the lopsided disciplinary practices that sometimes result from such intimidation. William Bennett recently captured this frustration when he commented on the Columbine shootings: "If these kids were walking around that school in black trench coats, saying 'Heil Hitler,' why didn't somebody pay attention? I guarantee you if little Cassie Bernall . . . and her friends had been walking through that school carrying Bibles and saying, 'Hail the Prince of Peace, King of Kings,' they would have been hauled into the principal's office."

We have gone far beyond government neutrality toward religion. We have gone too far when we allow a student to salute Hitler and prohibit a student from praising God.

However, we must ask what exactly people want when they say "Put prayer back in school." Do they mean reinstituting a mandatory moment of silence? Is that prayer? Do they want a school official to read a written prayer over the intercom? Do they want the legislature to mandate these duties to the local schools? If so, should the legislature also specify which God is officially recognized by the state of Arkansas?

The issue of prayer in school becomes complicated when schools are government-run and attendance is compulsory. Outside of an education system in which parents have true choice with numerous options, forced school prayer can become a tool of the state used upon what amounts to a legally captive audience.

This is not perceived as a problem as long as the beliefs of the audience correspond with those of the state. The danger is there nonetheless. That is why James Madison argued, "Who does not see that the same authority that can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?"

Rather than co-opting liberal methods of state mandates, people of faith concerned about religious freedom in our schools should turn their efforts toward educating students, teachers, and administrators of the rights students already have. Courts have ruled that students have a right to pray and read their Bibles in school as long as such actions are not disruptive to other educational activities. Additionally, courts have held that schools allowing nonacademic, secular clubs and meetings must also allow religious clubs and meetings. We have tried to inform students of these rights so they can take advantage of opportunities to responsibly and legally exercise their religious freedoms.

I wish there were more easy answers. I also wish it were as easy as passing another law to do this or that. Unfortunately, it is not. Until government discovers a way to legislate what is in people's hearts, we will have to rely on families, churches, and concerned citizens to perform this most important of functions.

Fortunately, it appears these vital intermediary institutions are starting to have an effect. A few cultural indicators are starting to improve. The American Enterprise magazine, citing Gallup polls, recently reported that religious belief is on the rise. Since the 1970s the percentage of Americans who say religion is "very important" in their lives has increased from 52 percent to 61 percent. During the same time the percentage of teenagers attending religious services in an average week has risen from 47 percent to 55 percent. Additionally, according to a Washington Post/Harvard/Kaiser Family Poll, 78 percent of respondents said encouraging a belief in God was more important than encouraging a modern scientific outlook.

These trends are cause for hope. Big government remedies are increasingly proving to be futile. As violence persists and people are inundated with horrific images on the evening news, attention inevitably will turn to areas where true meaning can be found.

Increasingly, people are finding this meaning in faith. As citizens, we must do all we can to encourage this trend while not yield to the temptation that big government remedies present. As more and more citizens find meaning and answers through faith, let's not threaten the trend by encoding it into law.

This article by Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was first presented in the July 1999 Arkansas Review. It is used here by permission, together with an additional message from the governor to Liberty readers.



To the readers of Liberty: We have received a tremendously positive response to the idea that people of faith should turn their efforts toward making the public aware of the rights public school students already have, rather than focusing on something that could become a tool of the state.

There are those who have said they are amazed a conservative Republican would take such a moderate or even liberal position. Opposition to state-instituted school prayers, however, is not a moderate or liberal position. It is a principled, constitutional position, based on the idea that conservatives should not utilize big-brother tactics to accomplish noble ends.

In other words, it is inconsistent to fight government efforts to mandate curricula while simultaneously attempting to wrest control of the system so a different ideology can be imposed. The point that should be emphasized is an emphatic support of students' religious freedom. The courts have stated that the religious rights of students are not forfeited at the school door. Rather than working for mandatory school prayer, religious conservatives should inform students and administrators of the rights the students already possess. Too much energy is being expended on symbolic and potentially government-expanding legislation.

Article Author: Mike Huckabee