This post comes from my perspective as an educator, and also as a frequent unwilling participant in publicly led prayers. There are two simple reasons why institutionally directed prayer is wrong: equal rights and individual privacy. We often hear about the equal rights aspect, but I think the invasion of privacy is more powerful and more troubling. When Kevin Lowery, principle of Lebanon High School in Missouri, led a prayer at the school’s graduation ceremony, he did more than alienate a few non-Christian students and parents. He faced those students and their parents with an awkward choice: they could either bow their heads in grudging compliance with Mr. Lowery’s religious exercise and join in the subsequent applause, or they could stand visibly apart from the crowd and thereby out themselves as detractors. This presents the non-Christians (or non-participating Christians) with a crisis in which they must either go against their consciences, or be spotlighted as outsiders. That is coercive and it is wrong.
Suppose that instead of praying, Mr. Lowery had asked all the Christians in the room to stand. Suppose he had asked all the non-Christians to stand. How about just they Muslims or the Jews? How about all the Atheists? These would be pretty intrusive requests, but leading a prayer from the pulpit is no different. It is extremely easy to sort out who is from who isn’t by watching what people do when the praying starts. It may be the case that many evangelical Christians enjoy having their religious views exposed as publicly as possible, but most people prefer to keep their views and affiliations quiet, and they shouldn’t need to give any reason for exercising their own privacy.
Atheist advocate Jerry Coyne has been heavily pursuing this matter at Lebanon high school, and has received many responses from people on “both” sides of the issue. One of the first responses Coyne received was from a school board member, Mr. Kim Light, who asked: “My question is whether or not this is funded and/or supported by the University of Chicago and is this YouTube viewing conducted using university resources and conducted during time that could be used for instructional or research time.”
Mr. Light’s “question” was in fact a thinly veiled threat, probing at the blurry line that separates academic freedom from (potentially) objectionable outside interests. Mr. Kim’s threatening stance is not uncommon coming from those who want to constrain the speech of university professors. Here is my response to that kind of threat: I am knowingly and deliberately writing this post during “business hours” from my university office, using my university computer while sitting on my university chair. The purpose of this post is to give a message to any of my students or colleagues who may be reading: I respect your religious privacy and autonomy. I will not ever force you to publicly expose your religious views in any university function. I will not ever impose a religious exercise on you or on the members of any captive audience. If you have special needs associated with your religious views, I will make an effort (within reason) to discretely accommodate those needs.
I feel it is important for all educators to acknowledge that their students and peers comprise a diverse population, and we have a professional obligation to be neutral in all respects except for scholarly performance and professional conduct. If a student wants to approach me about religion, then we can have a free discussion. If a student wants to say a quiet personal prayer before an exam, that’s their prerogative (luckily I’m an Atheist or else I might consider that to be cheating). But I understand it is not my place to corner people into a religiously themed exercise.
This isn’t a hard concept at all.