Choice, Not Compulsion: The Proper Place For God In Schools

There is a place for religion in public education – and that place is governed by principles like equal treatment and non-compulsion.

After the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last month, we heard the usual din from the intolerant voices of the Religious Right asserting that the violence happened because God is not allowed in public schools.

It’s an inaccurate, simplistic and offensive argument. For starters, prayer and other religious activities are not banned from public schools; only school-sponsored or mandated prayer has been declared unconstitutional. There’s a world of difference between the two.

The Religious Right’s chorus is loud and strident, to be sure. Thankfully, theirs are not the only religious voices out there. More thoughtful commentary is also being heard. Among them is this piece by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan.

“In America our public schools are intended to be religiously neutral,” Hamilton observes on his blog. “Our teachers and schools are neither to endorse nor to inhibit religion. I believe this is a very good thing. When my kids were growing up I wanted their teachers to teach them science, reading, math, and history. I also wanted them to care about my kids.  But I did not want my children’s public school teachers teaching them religion. That was my job as a parent, and the job of our church, Sunday school, and youth group.”

Hamilton also provides a perceptive Christian response to those who argue that God has been expelled from the classroom.

He writes, “We don’t need mandatory, non-sectarian prayers read over the loudspeaker to ‘put God back in schools.’ God never left the schools. God is still at work through the hundreds of thousands of gifted teachers and administrators, committed parents, and passionate volunteers who seek to help give our children ‘a future with hope.’”

I was also struck by the first comment to Hamilton’s blog. It comes from John, a young man who says he graduated from a public high school in 2009. John says he never felt he had to hide his faith or that it was hampered in school.

“No, my teachers didn’t teach religion, and we didn’t have a group prayer to start the day,” John writes. “But that didn’t matter. My prayer life was dictated by my own sense of spiritual discipline, it didn't need to be required by the school. My religious education came from my parents, my church, and my Bible.”

John asserts, “Often times I find those that are claiming that our schools don’t allow God, are people who have not been in a public school for many, many years and are misinterpreting what they hear.”

I’ve had the same thought many times. I’m a public school parent, and when I hear the Religious Right talk, the schools they describe sound nothing like the ones I’m familiar with. In the schools my daughter and son have attended, no student has ever been ejected for saying grace over lunch, religion is objectively discussed when it’s relevant to the curriculum and plenty of student-run clubs that focus on religious (and non-religious) topics meet during non-instructional time.

Hamilton reminds us there is a place for religion in public education – and that place is governed by principles like equal treatment and non-compulsion. Voluntary school prayer exists, but mandatory school prayer has long been expelled.

Good riddance to it. Under the model Hamilton celebrates, our public schools do what they must in a multi-faith, multi-philosophy society: welcome all young people – be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist or none of the above.

P.S. I noticed that Hamilton earned his undergraduate degree at Oral Roberts University! That just makes his comments all the sweeter.