In 1976 I left a small Catholic grammar school, where we prayed aloud four times a day, to attend a large public high school where we didn’t pray aloud at all. The United States Supreme Court had banned school-sponsored prayer in 1962, but nobody was keeping me from praying. I prayed for help on my biology test. I prayed for the red-haired boy in Alabama History to smile at me, and I gave a little prayer of thanksgiving when he did. I offered up silent prayers of astonishment and silent prayers of gratitude and silent prayers for peace — peace for my own agitated heart and peace for the whole agitated world. I prayed all day long, and no one in my public school had any idea I was praying at all.
It has been decades since I prayed my way through high school, but all across the red states, conservative Christians are still challenging that 1962 decision, constantly pushing the limits of what “student-led” prayer in public school, which the ruling permits, really means. Earlier this year, a 17-year-old student in Louisiana sued her school district for beginning the day with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Technically a student leads the prayer. In reality the student reads from a printout that school officials set beside the microphone.
Conservative Christians are forever trying to inject their personal religious beliefs into the public sphere. Here in Tennessee, the owner of a small-town bakery just outside Nashville recently reneged on an agreement to bake a wedding cake because the wedding in question involved two brides and no grooms.