Ethical Educator

Praying for a Colleague
School Administrator, April 2017

Scenario: The principal of a high school in South Carolina asked to hold a prayer vigil on the school’s campus at 7 a.m. on the day after the death of a faculty member who was prominent throughout the community. The superintendent acknowledged the public prayers infringed on the Constitution’s separation of church and state. “But in the Bible Belt,” he says, “I felt like this is what was best for the staff, for that community, and it didn’t involve students. … In this case, you’re on shaky ground but then you have to let your personal beliefs come into play.” Should the administrators have acted differently? 

Shelley Berman:
The actions taken by the principal and superintendent were in direct conflict with what they should be modeling for the community. While a vigil or non-sectarian memorial service might have been appropriate to help the school staff and community mourn the faculty member, the introduction of prayer and religion was antithetical to the administrators’ roles as school leaders. Their actions constituted a state-sponsored exercise of religion on state property. Their recognition that the community’s dominant culture is a religious one made it even more important that they protect the religious liberty of others and the non-sectarian role of public education by pursuing a non-sectarian approach to honoring this individual.

That the vigil was to occur prior to school and not involve students is irrelevant. As school leaders, the administrators hold the authority and responsibility to ensure and protect the rights of all individuals. If they felt that a prayer vigil was the most appropriate way to honor this individual, it should have been scheduled at a religious or private institution and not sponsored by the school district. Their gut instinct that this activity was an infringement on the Constitution’s separation of church and state should have overcome their personal beliefs and led them to find a different way of showing respect for someone who taught students of all creeds and faiths.

Opening the schoolhouse doors to a religious observance sets a precedent that schools are a public space for religious observations by any group, even one that may be offensive to the community. Unlike the rental of space to religious organizations, which may be allowable under school board policy, once the door is opened to administrator-sanctioned religious observance, it is difficult to close.

As leaders for students, staff and the community, the principal and superintendent are responsible for creating a safe space for individuals of all faiths as well as atheists. The separation of church and state is one of the core principles that guide our democracy and our public institutions. Approving this vigil undermined the authority vested in school leaders to uphold the Constitution. 

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in the 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision that “one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the Government's placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious service. . . . The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say . . . .” It is critical that school leaders appreciate this larger responsibility and address situations in ways that affirm our religious liberty rights.

Sarah Jerome:

The principal and the superintendent might find useful references posted online by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which have extensive research available on organized prayer in the public school setting. While there is much litigation and court precedent on the topic of students and prayer in public schools, it appears there is considerably less controversy regarding teacher prayer outside the presence of students. 

According to the Joint Statement of Current Law on Religion in the Public Schools signed by 36 agencies, churches and advocacy groups including the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Ethical Union, American Jewish Committee and American Muslim Council, teachers are permitted to engage in private religious activity that is voluntary and outside the presence of students. Therefore, the superintendent did not need to refer to the "Bible Belt" or "shaky ground" in his permission to allow the principal to host a prayer vigil as long as no students would be present and as long as it was voluntary.

The death of a faculty member is an important event to a school faculty and staff.  It is important to provide a place and time for the staff to come together to acknowledge the loss and grieve and find a path for healing. Several options may be needed, including grief counseling, time before and after school for meeting together to talk about the deceased and give each other support, time off from school to attend the funeral/burial and prayer/meditation circles where students are not present.  These sessions must be voluntary and during times when students are not present.

The Anti-Defamation League states, "It is unconstitutional for teachers to pray with or in the presence of students in school or in their capacity as teachers or representatives of the school. ... Because teachers hold such a special status in school are viewed as government officials speaking to a group that is both a captive audience and extremely impressionable , religious speech by teachers or other school personnel will be seen as a state endorsement of religion."..."The Establishment Clause forbids state-sponsored prayers in the public school settings no matter how nondenominational the prayers may be."  (LEE v WESIMAN, 505 US 577 1992)

Maggie Lopez:

The administrators should have made a different choice. Though it is fully understood that there was a need to comfort the grieving faculty and community, there were other options. The prayer vigil could have been sponsored by a parent or community member as opposed to the administration and held at a church, park or other non-school affiliated facility close to the school. This would have provided an opportunity to still honor the faculty member, without it being school-sponsored and “infringing on the Constitution” as the superintendent acknowledged.

The assumption the superintendent makes that students will not attend is of concern. If the vigil is held as stated here, what will happen to students who hear about the vigil and show up to honor their teacher? Will they be turned away? This is another good reason to have the vigil non-school sponsored so that if students do show up, they too can participate without the principal or superintendent having to worry about potential conflicts. 

As district leaders, we must solve problems with our head and heart. Our students, community and staff are watching to see how we solve life crisis when they arise. We need to be good role models.

Mario Ventura:

The passing of a prominent faculty member with strong ties to the community is a devastating loss. Although organizing a prayer vigil for the community might seem like a good way to honor the loss of this individual and begin the healing process, the district-sponsored event is unconstitutional.
Educators are a highly caring group of people, who, in times of crisis, have a tendency to respond emotionally, overshadowing professional standards of conduct. Putting these emotions aside, the principal and superintendent have a professional, legal and ethical obligation to comply with the law. Personal beliefs and feelings should not be the underlying factors when making a decision that infringes on the rights of others and violates the Constitution. 

Each month,
School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Maggie Lopez, a retired superintendent in Pueblo, Colo.; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz.