RDPulpit: Stop Playing Politics with Prayer

A 2006 survey found that Americans know more about The Simpsons and American Idol than their rights included in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Recent actions by state legislators in Missouri suggest that such ignorance about the First Amendment exists even among elected officials.

Missouri legislators want voters to consider a Constitutional amendment explaining that children have the right to pray in school or read the Bible on the school bus. Corroborating the results of the aforementioned poll, these legislators seem to not understand that the First Amendment already grants such rights. The legislators might be shocked to learn that children already pray in school; especially on test day or when they fear they will be picked last in gym class. Some of the children may even pray not only while on a school bus, but because they are on it; like when a bully boards or when the bus flies over the curb.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the amendment has more to do with politics than with prayer. Were it not political, the proponents of the bill would not have voted down an attempt to move the amendment to the August ballot instead of the November one. If there really is a problem, why not fix it as soon as possible? Why not vote at the start of the next school year instead of waiting three months into it? The answer is simple: partisan politics. These Republican legislators, mimicking the national trend over the past two decades, are praying that the amendment will bring conservatives to the polls and thus bless the electoral chances of Republicans this November.

As a Baptist minister, I find such brazen political co-opting of a sacred moment to be blasphemous. Prayer is not a political football! Ironically, those who self-righteously proclaim they are standing up for prayer seem to have forgotten the teachings of Jesus. As Jesus explained in his Sermon on the Mount, we should pray in secret in our closet and not publicly like hypocrites so that all can see us. Rather than praying quietly, some of Missouri’s legislators apparently want everyone to see them proudly proclaiming their faith.

Proponents of the legislation claim it is needed because of a couple of examples of children getting in trouble for praying in school or reading a Bible on the bus. Instead of a Constitutional amendment, how about sending a memo reminding teachers and school officials of the rights children already have? Are we really ready to turn the Missouri State Constitution into a school bulletin board for announcements and reminders? How about an amendment spelling out the right to recess or bathroom breaks? Or how about an amendment asking parents to silence their cell phones during the school play?

Bad cases make bad laws and even worse Constitutional amendments. Let us deal with violations of rights in a more appropriate manner. Surely our legislators can find more important and productive tasks to focus their energy and our tax dollars on. How about working to provide medical care for uninsured children, fighting the growing instances of childhood obesity, ensuring that children are safe from violence, or making sure no child falls behind in their education and drops out?

Of course, these real problems require work and may not provide easy political soundbites like “I’m for prayer!” But if we really want to improve the lives of children (as well as live out the teachings of Jesus to help “the least of these”), then these are the issues our legislators should attend to. As long as they instead decide to play politics, it seems our children really do not have a prayer.