A Republican state senator in Indiana is promoting a bill in the legislature that would allow public schools to start the day with prayer. Not just any prayer, mind you, but the Lord’s Prayer.
Putting aside the broader issues with religious freedom and separation of church and state, requiring students to recite the Lord’s Prayer is a blatant exclusion of people who are not Christian. A child being raised as Muslim or Jewish should not be required to recite a Christian prayer any more than a child being raised as Christian should be required to recite a Jewish or Muslim prayer. Other questions abound: What version of the Lord’s Prayer will be uttered? The Catholic version? The King James version? Or one of the many modern adaptations commonly offered in the wide variety of Protestant churches? How about the version found in the Gospel of Luke, which differs from the better known version in the Gospel of Matthew?
The bill’s promoters say that it offers a way for students to “opt out” of the prayer. Obviously, these people have no concept of the peer pressure and possible social ramifications if a child did decide to opt out. Children and teens who have refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance or even just the words “under God” as part of the pledge have been persecuted by their peers and repeatedly punished by their school systems. While they may eventually prevail in the court system, is it worth it to live daily with the taunting and the teasing and the loss of privileges?
Needless to say, I was surprised when my 10-year-old son told me that he is glad there is an option for a parent to send a letter so he wouldn’t have to say the prayer. “You would be okay with that?” I asked him in response. “Do you know what the other kids might say to you?”
He seemed to think that it wouldn’t be a big deal. While I would like that to be the case, I have a lot more life experience than he does. And I’m much more familiar with what it’s like to be a religious minority in a very religious and politically conservative state. I’m also all too familiar with what my daughter, now 17, went through in middle school when she came out as an atheist. When she later came out in high school as bisexual, it was no big deal given what she had to go through over her religious beliefs.
Then there was the atheistic parent I talked to about this proposal who said, “Go ahead, let them pass it. I’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court.” This parent, who plans to encourage his child to say the prayer but in a goofy way, would challenge this law directly. If his child is punished, he’ll insist that his son had said the prayer required by the law.
I have trouble with this attitude, and not just for teaching a child to be disrespectful of the school and the law. It feeds the stereotype that non-believers are radical litigators who want to ruin it for everyone. And I have to wonder how the child’s needs factor into the equation. My spouse and I agreed when we first sent our children to the public schools that we would never use them as pawns in a battle over our beliefs. I’m more than happy to be there and support my children in their own quest to challenge the system, but I won’t ever use them to do so on my own behalf.
The good news is that the bill is unlikely to pass, even in the deeply red state of Indiana. The bad news is that my son is only in fourth grade and we have a lot of years yet to get through the public school system.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).
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