A recent flap over religion in public schools in Kentucky could be a teachable moment for all of us.
Officials at Pike Central High School in Pikeville allowed a “prayer locker” to be established in the school. An empty locker was decorated with a sign encouraging students to deposit their prayer requests in it.
Americans United had strong evidence that the locker was sponsored by the staff. A picture of it was posted on the school’s Art Department Facebook page, and the idea was attributed to a “Mrs. Good.”
Because it appeared that teachers were spearheading this initiative, AU’s attorneys wrote to school officials and requested that the locker be taken down. The officials complied.
Since then, some students have announced that they will accept prayer requests from their peers through their lockers and host voluntary prayer events. They seem to think they’ve pulled one over on Americans United, and local religious conservatives are crowing.
But Americans United does not oppose voluntary, non-disruptive forms of religious activity by public school students. These young people are free to accept prayer requests from one another, discuss religion among themselves and engage in truly voluntary forms of prayer. Americans United opposes only school-sponsored, coercive forms of religion in public schools. The distinction is crucial.
Religious Right groups are fond of claiming that public schools are “religion-free” zones, but that’s hardly the case. The school-sponsored prayer locker in Pikeville ran afoul of long-standing court precedent and had to go. That doesn’t affect a student’s decision to pray for a friend or the ability of a student to ask peers to pray for him or her.
As is always the case when it comes to religion, decisions about where, when and how to pray and worship are best left to the individual’s conscience. That’s true everywhere – even in Pikeville.