Illinois state Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) made a surprising statement this week about a major change he would like to see in schools: more prayer.
Ford told a group of ministers: “I also urge the ministers here to fight to get prayer back in schools. That’s a mission that we need to do. We need to make sure that we get prayer back in schools in some form or fashion,” KMOX, the CBS radio affiliate in St. Louis, reported.
Ford’s comment, which the radio station reported as being made “out of the blue,” is a real head scratcher.
He says on his website that he believes “more strongly than ever in the concept of social justice,” and “that every member of society is deserving of equal economic, political and social rights.”
For someone who believes so strongly in social justice and equality, why is he willing to ignore the rights of a growing segment of our population, the non-believers, atheists and humanists -- as well as all of those religious people who oppose mandated and coercive prayer in public schools?
And why is Ford hoping to cast aside rulings made by the U.S. Supreme Court? Two decisions made by the high court in the early 1960s banned school-sponsored prayer and mandatory Bible readings, as well as official religious observances, from public schools (Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp).
Public school students still have the right to pray individually or in groups and study the Bible, provided they do so in an unofficial capacity and without infringing on the rights of other students or disrupting school activities. The Supreme Court didn’t kick religion out of public schools – it just placed limits on schools' ability to sponsor religious activities. We are grateful for that.
Ford, of course, doesn’t see things that way. And to make matters worse, he went a step further during his remarks, saying students also need a place to go “when they feel weak,” and that schools should be able to put up shrines or religious symbols.
If students “feel weak,” they are free to consult with a guidance counselor, their parents, teachers or whomever else they trust. They can even go off campus to a religious figure or attend services at their house of worship. Students have many options, which is one major reason no school needs to (nor should it) establish any sort of prayer room or shrine for students.
As for the religious symbols, which ones, exactly, would Ford want to see in schools? Would he feel comfortable with symbols from Islam, Hinduism, Wicca or other minority traditions? Seems unlikely, and any attempts by a public school to honor one faith over others would be an obvious violation of the First Amendment.
Fortunately the ministers whom Ford addressed didn’t seem very receptive to his ideas, KMOX said. None expressed support for Ford’s comments and one even said school prayer is “not a priority.”
It’s possible that Ford spoke in reaction to the tragic events in Newtown, Conn. The mass shooting there has left many searching for answers and ways to make our schools safer. Official prayers and religious shrines in schools, however, are not a solution to stop violence.
Ford should channel his expressed desire for social justice and equality into endeavors that actually advance those principles, rather than plans that would restrict religious liberty and violate the Constitution.