Over the years, I have modified my opinion on this many times. For a long time I believed it was a non-issue—how do you prevent it? If a student is intent on praying, what would prevent it?
Nothing. Which leads to the next realization that the people complaining about, demanding it, leading the charge against a prohibition that does not, in fact, exist are not interested in prayer in school: they’re interest in School Prayer, which requires public demonstration. What they want is openly-led prayer, as a group, with full participation.
This is not prayer, this is indoctrination. This is taking a position and directing the students to attend to what is being advocated. One major problem with this is that those students who decline to participate will be singled out and self-identified. What, one may ask, is wrong with that? Did you never go to school in the United States? Any deviation from a presumed “norm” is an excuse for bullying.
What is desired is an imposition of conformity.
Well, one might ask again, what is wrong with that? Isn’t that part of the point of attending school?
To which I must concede, yes, it is. We wish our people to have a common grasp of what it means to be a citizen and for that a certain degree of conformity is required.
Which is why this is such an intractable issue for many people.
How do I feel about it now?
Well. I believe the problem is not so much with a relative dispositions of a required set of conformist doctrines so much as that this is not supposed to be what school should be about in the first place. School—ideally—is where we should be sending children to learn how to apply skepticism. We should teach them how to think, how to examine the world, take things apart and put them together again. We should be allowing them to discover, in lightly directed ways, how the world works, what it means to develop understanding, and how to approach life critically. We should be teaching them, in short, how to avoid being duped.
While there may be schools where that level of actual learning takes place, for the most part it doesn’t happen other than by accident. I’ve always felt, at least after reaching an age and a level of understanding that allowed it, that public schools are not there to teach but to produce Citizens—consumers, workers, voters, patriots, parrots. Therefore, School Prayer is just another aspect of this and would be consistent with the programmatic inculcation of the conformity too many people prefer to the possibility of having a population of critical individuals questioning every damn thing and maybe challenging the status quo regularly.
So (again) how do I feel about it now?
Absolutely not. Religious instruction of any kind, unless done within the context of history classes, should be kept out of school, because it is by definition antithetical to skepticism. Which is of course why some people want it in there.
Somehow, some way, many students manage to acquire the tools of critical thinking even through the often mind-numbing “instruction” that passes for learning. They emerge as questioners, as independent thinkers. Apparently enough of them that the proselytes of conformity want to throw this in to the mix to see if something can be done to shut it down. So in the name of giving actual freedom of thought a chance, I must declare that I prefer religiosity of any kind kept out of public education. The fact is, religion depends on faith, which is incompatible in concept with skepticism. Mature believers certainly do find ways to balance them, but it seems unfair to expect kids to find that balance before they are even acquainted with the power of their intellects.
The day comes when we actually teach critical thinking as a matter of course, then by all means, admit prayer. Until then, I say leave it out. We do too much already to instill a stifling conformity.