Prayer as supplication, not as schoolhouse wedge

July 26, 2022 4:00 am

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy takes a knee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the court on April 25, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Kennedy was terminated from his job by Bremerton public school officials in 2015 after refusing to stop his on-field prayers after football games. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court should house our best legal minds, but the majority’s recent opinion on prayer in public schools needs a better reading of the room.

To summarize: The Supremes, by a vote of 6-3, decided that a public high school football coach’s prayer at the 50-yard line after games was a permissible exception to that little nagging necessity of our democracy we’ve lived by for nearly 231 years: separation of church and state.

You can look up the details, but aside from the potential for a slew of school psalmists to let loose, the highlight of the case for me was that the justices couldn’t even agree on the facts. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch referred to the coach’s prayer as “quiet” and “private.” So incensed at his description was his colleague Justice Sonia Sotomayor that she attached a photo of the coach’s “prayer,” in which he is raising a football helmet in invocation surrounded by several dozen players. Preach, brother, preach.

For those of us who regularly practice some sort of spiritual discipline that includes communing with a power greater than ourselves, prayer is a private, personal habit. Not that some don’t appreciate a group intercession, whether at a religious service or even a public event.

But generally speaking, prayer, whether on a knee as was the wont of the coach in question, sitting in a pew, on a prayer rug or anywhere remains at its core a conversation between mere mortals and their deity.

Christians may be aware of the admonition Jesus gave when he said, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men … but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father who is unseen.” So there is that, too.

The Supreme Court case was widely hailed and criticized. Surely, too, prayers were offered up on both sides of the debate about whether a public employee on the taxpayers’ dime can espouse religion in a way that supports or endorses a specific spiritual path.

Public schools offer a most difficult set of circumstances. Prayer and the idea of God or Yahweh or Allah or whomever is on spiritual call in a particular faith have been part of public schools from their inception. Anyone who has ever taken a pop quiz, been unprepared for a math final or lost a set of note cards before a class speech has called on the power of a supreme being of some stripe to intervene. Such prayerful supplication is common.

Nevertheless, some, such as Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen, insist that we need to “put God back into our schools.” His campaign platform calls for putting “Christian prayer” back in schools and that the “erosion of Christian faith is hurting America. Secular humanism has taken over our schools because we allowed radical ideologues to silence our nation’s Christian convictions.”

Our nation’s Christian convictions? As I recall from my civics class, where I privately prayed on occasion, we have three branches of government, none of which is called “Christian.”

Whether or not the high court’s decision will lead to a plethora of prayer in public school classrooms, fields of play and locker rooms, what the court missed is the special relationship between teachers or coaches and their charges. Group prayer, even if it’s unrequired, can be a powerful force for impressionable youth needing to belong and be accepted. Any notion that the relationship is something other than that surely comes from those who have either forgotten their own experience or who are rarely, if ever, in a classroom.

All of which makes the court’s ruling potentially troublesome, especially for those of us prone to the quiet and private practice of prayer.

Where public schools — where private and quiet prayer are already mainstays of matriculation for many — go with this remains to be seen. But any notion that a teacher or coach leading a prayer has no impact on students is folly, both students for whom the prayer makes them feel a part of something and those for whom the prayer underscores their spiritual or religious differences.

Prayer should never be an isolating wedge between students and their classmates and teachers. To that only one thing needs to be said.


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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.