As is typically the case following these all-too-familiar tragedies, folks have been scratching their heads trying to figure out why Sandy Hook Elementary was the scene of a bloody massacre that took the lives of 20 precious children and 6 devoted faculty members. How could someone kill those babies? What motivated him? Why does this keep happening? Is the scope of these tragedies going to continue getting worse?
The possible causes considered by leaders, experts and laymen range from the likely (our cultural obsession with violencee), to the under-explored (media coverage of mass murders) and on to the absurd (gay marriage? Seriously, it is time to label Westboro Baptist Church a terrorist organization); most seem to agree that conversations about mental health and access to guns are the most salient ones at this critical moment.
However, there is an oft-repeated “reason” for this sort of tragedy that has reared its head here and I find it to be both insulting and confusing. Various forms of “This is what happens when you take prayer out of schools” have made their way across social media and have tumbled from the lips of some of those same conservatives —IRONY ALERT—who oppose gun control measures that could prohibit access to the sort of assault weapons that were used to storm classrooms full of children last week.
The debate over prayer in public schools has been a quiet one, largely because it’s pretty clear that setting aside time for prayer in public schools violates our Constitutional separation between church and state. In 1962, the United States Supreme Court ruled that public schools cannot have official prayer times for that reason. Yet with every school tragedy, there is always some outcry that ‘removing God from the classroom’ is to blame. There’s a cringe-worthy meme traveling across Instagram that features a letter exchange between a child and God:
Dear God: Why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, a concerned student.
Dear Concerned Student: I’m not allowed in schools. God”
REALLY? God is out here acting like a dude who showed up to the club in sneakers and got turned away at the door? That’s what we’re preaching in these streets now?
In all seriousness, my personal spiritual beliefs make it hard to reconcile the idea that God is launching an attack on children at school because they don’t take the time to pray as a class. People who pray, worship and serve a higher power as they see fit are often the victims of violence, illness, tragedy and strife. We can’t say that the Sandy Hook killings would never take place at a Baptist or Catholic school.
However, there is a very simple solution for those who feel that children need to pray during the school day.
You see, while the SCOTUS ruled that official prayer has no place in our schools, there is no law prohibiting children from praying in the classroom. No, the teacher isn’t going to announce “Prayer time!” after recess, but your child can absolutely take a moment for personal worship during the school day. He or she may also read the Bible (or Qur’an or Torah or any other religious text) during personal free time.
If your child knows how to pray, she doesn’t need the teacher to require her to do so. In fact, many children from religious backgrounds pray throughout the school day. If you so desire that your kids take the time to do so everyday, then that should be a conversation for your household. Perhaps you can send your little ones to school with a small notebook where they keep track of their daily prayer times and/or you can pencil it in on their daily schedule organizers.
The separation between church and state is too often ignored by those who feel that the freedom of others to practice that which they take moral issue with is a violation of their sacred texts. What we must remember is that this a nation of Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, etc, etc. And even within the major religions, there is no universal agreement about how God moves or what is required of His followers. For us to peacefully co-exist in this country, we cannot waste time demanding that federal law bends to accommodate our spiritual ones. The Constitution provides you the right to worship as you see fit and protects your ability to do so. Instead of blasting our country for failing to force religion upon its citizens, be grateful that you have the freedom to practice the one of your choosing. You want prayer in schools? Teach your children how to do it.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com