I was super excited when The West Wing became available to stream on Netflix. As any good Democrat would, I love the show. I would vote for Bartlett any day. Wouldn’t you? I watched the show when it originally aired, but I was too young to understand most of what was going on and almost too young to watch it at all, what with all those people getting shot, kidnapped, and assassinated. I’m enjoying watching it now that I’ve experienced what American politics is really like.
One thing I’ve noticed come up in the show is school prayer. C.J. is approached by an evangelical spokesperson who asks her to bring it to the attention of the president. A possible appointee to the Depart of Education is scrapped because she followed the law in not allowing lead prayers in the school. It seems like a legitimately hot topic at the time.
I was actually in high school at the time this show was airing. I was in the exact position that the show’s Republican characters wanted to Constitutionally protect. My high school followed the law, there were no school-led prayers to my knowledge. Teachers didn’t lead prayer in classes or assemblies and coaches didn’t lead prayer in games (I think, maybe it happened in games I didn’t attend but I never saw it). And as a pretty seriously religious student I never saw a problem with it.
There were several Bible studies that would meet before classes started for the day that were run by students. There was no difficulty getting permission for these groups.
Students organized the annual “See You at the Pole” day. No one ever hassled the students. Teachers would even join us for a few minutes as they came in, though they usually stayed silent.
A moment of silence was offered before the Pledge of Allegiance each day. For my entire school career I assumed this moment was in respect for those who had died for the flag we were pledging and only as an adult did I realize it had probably been substituted for a prayer. There was no pressure at all to pray during this moment.
I carried my Bible around my high school, no one ever told me to put it away. No one ever told me I couldn’t pray. When bad things happened in the world outside our safe four walls, when we heard about the Columbine shootings or the increasingly terrifying attacks on 9/11, no administrator walked around forcing groups of students huddled in hallways or around lunch tables, praying together, to disperse.
School prayer does exist, it is expressly protected by the Constitution, and in most schools student’s right to freely practice their faith is not abridged. Any student or faculty member (that is not acting at that time as a member of the faculty but as their “civilian” selves) may pray whenever they want. The only thing that isn’t allowed is the school taking an official or implied stance on religion or worse, forcing students to participate in a religious practice.
I already mentioned that I was fairly religious when I was in high school. I was also affiliated with the largest religious population in my school, vague-Christianity. I was part of the religious majority, and if school-led prayer had occurred, the kinds of prayers offered wouldn’t have been offensive to my beliefs. But I was really glad, even then, that there was no such thing. Teachers leading prayers would have been very awkward and I would have been afraid that if I had a disagreement, religiously, with a teacher that my grades might suffer. I came from a very small school, so I knew which kids in my class had families that were Catholic or Protestant or didn’t go to church at all and I would have spent the time in”prayer” worrying about the kids who didn’t fit the mold that the prayer addressed.
So when the West Wing characters bemoan the loss of school prayer, I groan. When people today blame tragedies like the Newtown shootings on the government for, “taking God out of the schools,” I get infuriated. People who are still pushing for the kind of school prayer that bullies students of minority faiths into violating their consciences or suffering humiliation of sticking out are themselves nothing but bullies. And bullies don’t have any place in our schools.