Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

Prayer in Public School – Baltimore Edition

This was actually written with the blood of the Establishment Clause

Testing can be difficult no matter how old you are or what you’re testing for.  In my experience, the only thing that prepares me for a test is to study and really work at understanding the material.

For the last two years at a public school in Baltimore, they’ve been trying a little something extra to get the kids pumped and encouraged for testing.  Is it Stewart Smalley-esque posative affirmations?  Perhaps some morning excersises to get the body awake and blood flowing?


Who am I kidding?  You can see the giant visual.  It’s prayer.

A Baltimore principal’s decision to use prayer in preparation for recent statewide tests is drawing criticism as improperly mixing religion and public education.

For two years, prayer services have been held at Northeast Baltimore’s Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School as the Maryland School Assessments, a standardized test for third through eighth grades, neared. Fliers promoted the most recent event, on March 5, as a way to “come together, as one, in prayer and ask God to bless our school to pass the MSA.”

Asked about the event, city school officials said they would investigate. In a prepared statement, the school system said that, “while we as a district understand that prayer plays an important role for many in our school communities … it is not appropriate for public institutions of education to promote any particular religious practice.”

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, called the event a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits organized prayer in public school settings.

“It’s not even a close call,” ACLU attorney David Rocah said. “The whole flier is clearly conveying a religious message, overtly proselytizing, and somebody should have known better.”

Oi.  I know that these sort of things are usually organized and executed with the best of intentions in mind, but Principal Yon organizing and participating in a prayer in her official capacity is an obvious violation of the establishment clause.  If the students and parents wanted to get together and pray before hand, they should.  There’s nothing wrong with the free exercise of religion.  But because the event was organized and sponsored by the school, it can and should be considered a promotion of that religion by a government entity – which is not only illegal, but also totally inappropriate.

How ever well intentioned, this kind of thing is inevitably inconsiderate of those students who attend the school and are subject to the testing who don’t pray the same way that Yon does – or pray at all.  You know what’s the opposite of feeling like both your principal and your God on your side?  Feeling like your principal doesn’t think you have the same chance of success because her god ISN’T on your side.  But Principal Yon seems to be a symptom of a bigger issue.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the city principals’ union, said he supported Principal Jael Yon, “an exceptional principal trying to do what’s best for our children in the Baltimore City school system.”

Gittings added, “The only individuals I hold accountable for these injustices for Ms. Yon are the narrow-minded politicians from some 50 years ago, for removing prayer from our schools. Once prayer was removed from our schools, the respect for our teachers and administrators has been increasingly out of control.

Yes, it must be the absence of prayer that has affected children; it can’t be the changes in society driven by culture, environment, economy, current events, parental attitudes, etc. etc. etc. that have affected the student/teacher relationship.  That’s kind of a hard, complicated answer anyway.

I’m sure if prayer were to be once again allowed in schools, kids would certainly listen to and respect their parents and teachers, they would never cuss or smoke, they would most assuredly stop listening to rap, emo, and other contemporary kinds of music, and they would wear pleated khaki pants and sweater vests.

What.  The.  Hell?

The implications one might draw from that statement are multifaceted, yet equally ridiculous.

Are we to think god actually can’t help guide a school once prayer isn’t allowed?  Is god like a spiritual vampire, only allowed to exist and affect places where he is being actively prayed to?  That can’t possibly be the Christian god this guy is talking about then, since that supreme being is supposed to at least have the power to transcend pithy human constructs like laws.  Why would the kids (and teachers, business owners and city workers and everyone else who bears the burden brought by unruly kids) suffer because of a law they had nothing to do with?

I think, if I really believed that god stopped being as influential as he had been simply because some people decided to pass a law, I would be more concerned with why I should personally continue to hold an impotent god in such high esteem.

But I don’t think Gittings comment is really about god or religion anyway, I think his statement has to do with the threat of god being available to reference as a disciplinary tool for teachers and administrators.  How else is prayer linked to the amount of respect a kid feels for his or her teacher?  Even if you point to the gentler, more rational parts of the bible (That’s right, I said it) that encourage behaviors like respecting the instruction and knowledge of elders, all of that is constantly being followed by the eternally dammed fate of those who don’t obey.

Is it necessary to have the ability to constantly threaten the omnipotent eyes of an ultimate authoritarian in order for adults to get the respect of children?  Of course not.  Gittings seems pissed because each generation of kids are little different than the last – and as they change they become less known to him, therefore less easy to manage.  That is a challenge I respect and I certainly don’t envy, but re-instituting prayer to try to force kids’ respect isn’t the answer.

When I want a kid’s respect, I treat them with respect.  You know, like they’re actual people or something.

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LOL. This is very testable. Why not see whether the mystical efforts over the past 2 years were a waste or not? There could be various control groups, some who don’t pray, some who pray to get worse scores, some who pray to various deities (what if praying to Athena is better for tests?), some pray to Eric Cartman, and some get extra tutoring and log their study hours to show what human effort can do over the mysterious whims of a capricious deity. If the prayer results are all a wash, then they know to give it up and… Read more »


If I were to wager (pascal-style), they should be praying to St Jude, patron saint of lost causes.


So I looked up Jeremiah 33:3, the passage that apparently makes you score higher on state exams:

‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’ (New International Version, ©2011)

So, that’s our phone call; do we get to use a 50/50 or poll the audience too??

I see no surprise here. The religious reich has never allowed little things like the law, common sense and human decency to obstruct their goal of forcing their sick agenda on the rest of the world. Most of the problems of the world are, and always have been, caused by religion. For example, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, 9/11, and family planning clinic bombing in the USA. Then there were the crusades, the inquisition, witch burnings, and the dark ages. Get the idea? Humanity will never truly be free until the black yoke of religion is lifted by the clear… Read more »

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