Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters is on a tear to bring school-sponsored prayer back to the state’s public schools. This will not end well.
Walters, reacting to a letter he received earlier this month from a few clergy and conservative leaders in the state, has announced the formation of a faith-based advisory committee that will supposedly examine issues of religious freedom in public schools.
“I want them to do an analysis on the role of prayer and faith in schools – or the lack thereof – and let them come to their own conclusions,” Walters said.
In their letter to Walters, the religious leaders implored him to “take every action possible to allow corporate prayer and expressions of faith in God back in our public school system.”
The use of the word “corporate” is telling. In this context, it means “relating to a body of individuals.” In other words, the religious leaders are not asking for students to have the right to say prayers in an individual, voluntary and non-disruptive fashion – which they can already do; they’re seeking some sort of school-sponsored prayer that would be pressed onto all students, whether they want it or not.
The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated practices like that in 1962 and ’63, noting that they are inherently coercive. Yes, the high court has been chipping away at church-state separation lately, but the school prayer rulings remain intact.
I explained to Oklahoma’s KOCO-TV recently that public schools, which by law must serve children of all religions and those of no particular faith, are not appropriate vehicles for spreading spiritual messages. We have houses of worship for that.
There’s also a certain arrogance to proposals like this. The religious leaders who wrote to Walters are Christian, and I’m sure they believe that the “corporate” prayers they seek should represent their version of that faith, that is, fundamentalist and theologically conservative. Liberal/moderate Christians, non-Christians and non-believers would be relegated to a second-class citizenship.
That’s unacceptable. Forming an advisory committee that schemes to find ways to violate the rights of others isn’t just a waste of time, it’s offensive.
P.S. For Public Schools Week, you can learn more about the history of school-sponsored prayer in this special edition of Church & State from 2020.