Conservatives should be cautious about school prayer efforts: opinion

State Rep. Steve McMillian, R-Gulf Shores, is pushing legislation that would encourage prayer in public schools. (File)

Religious conservatives have been trying to restore prayer in our public schools since it was banned decades ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. They have good reasons; show me someone who regularly prays and I’ll show you someone who is joyful and blessed

That’s why supporters of school prayer would be pleased to learn that lawmakers are planning to introduce a bill to guarantee that students and their teachers have the right to pray in public schools in Alabama.

“We believe it will restore the rights of children to have voluntary religious activities in school,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, state Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores. The bill would protect praying, expressing religious beliefs, distributing religious literature, organizing prayer groups and expressing religious views in homework assignments.

That probably sounds great to those of us who support public prayer and religious freedom, but the devil is often in the details. One of those details is that the bill would also allow teachers to participate in religious activities with their students.

“A local board of education may not prohibit school personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students at reasonable times before or after the instructional day so long as such activities are voluntary for all parties…,” reads an early draft of the bill.

That could be a big problem. Even though some view prayer in public forums and prayer in public schools as the same issue, there’s a distinct difference between affirming the constitutional right of adults to pray before city council meetings and allowing government-paid teachers to pray and study scripture with our children. The very act of having a teacher present implies some sort of instruction may occur.

Could your child’s math teacher attend an after-school Bible study and share his denomination’s particular interpretation of scripture? If you think Common Core is controversial, you ain’t seen nothing like the parental fury that would be released should concepts like transubstantiation or predestination be taught in public schools.

Even so, when most people say they support school prayer they’re probably not thinking of anything heavy like studying theology. They’re most likely thinking of something simple like the heartfelt expository prayers some share at family gatherings, but even these usually affirm and teach a particular set of beliefs while sometimes rebuking others.

Some may think we should settle on what unites all Christians, like the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13, Luke 11: 2-4). That’s a common enough prayer, right? Maybe so, but even it isn’t without some concern. Many Christians conclude the Lord’s Prayer by saying “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever.” But that line can only be found in certain translations of the Bible, like the King James Version. Many believe it wasn’t really part of Jesus Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” and was added later as a doxology, which is a traditional way of concluding a prayer or song of praise. The line cannot be found in at least some editions of the English Standard Version or the New International Version, and it’s not in the New American Bible that’s used by Catholics. As a young Catholic I remember hearing my protestant friends say the doxology and thinking that somehow my parents had it wrong. I would have been even more confused if I heard it reinforced by teachers at the public school I attended.

We have differences within the Christian community and some are serious enough to have divided nations, churches and even families. Simple questions about the doxology or a teacher’s remark during an expository prayer could fuel a discussion about the protestant reformation, justification, church authority, proper translations and countless other issues that should be left to parents and the churches they choose to attend. The last entity we need to involve in the matter is a government-run public school.

Public prayer and discussion by and with adults is fine. Reasonable people firm in their faith can tolerate our many differences in such forums, or at least they should. Having our children’s faith potentially incorrectly taught by a well-meaning teacher at their public school, however, may be a step too far.

(J. Pepper Bryars grew up in Mobile and is now a writer living in Huntsville. Contact him at jpepperbryars@gmail.com and jpepperbryars.com.)