A Maryland high school is now allowing Muslim students with parental permission and good grades to leave class each day for prayer. My immediate reaction was to ask, Would the school grant the same right to Christians? Assuming the answer is no, this seemed to be another example of unfair discrimination against followers of Jesus.
But consider this fact: Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day, at specified times during the day. Christians (except in monastic orders) are not under similar obligation. Nor are followers of any other religious tradition, to my knowledge. Praying at a particular time is therefore a Muslim religious duty, similar to Mass for Catholics or Sunday worship for Protestants. Permitting Muslim students to obey their religion by praying during the day would therefore not be preferential to Islam.
My point this morning is not to discuss the advance of Islam in America or the escalation of persecution against Christians here and around the world. Both trends are real and should concern us greatly. But my focus this morning is more practical: if Muslims have religious rights at school, what rights do Christians possess?
In 1962, the Supreme Court (in Engel vs. Vitale) ruled that public schools could no longer permit state-sponsored prayers. The next year, the Court excluded public school-sponsored Bible reading as well. The Court made it clear that students could pray, bring their Bibles to class, and read Scripture during free time. The Bible can be studied as literature, but not required for religious purposes. Despite these clarifications, for the last 50 years many Christians have been confused regarding what they can and cannot do to express their faith in public schools.
The Alliance Defending Freedom has published a helpful FAQ on this subject. To summarize: students can pray, read the Bible, talk about their faith, form religious clubs, wear religious clothing, and distribute religious literature to the same degree that similar secular activities are allowed. For instance, if other non-curriculum related clubs are allowed on campus, religious clubs must be allowed. If non-religious literature can be distributed, Christian literature can be shared. Students cannot impose their religious activities on others; schools cannot endorse a particular religious tradition or activity.
After I became a Christian at the age of 15, the Christian Student Union at my high school was one of the most formative influences on my faith and character. After I made a commitment to ministry, a Christian chemistry teacher gave me my first preaching Bible. I will always be grateful for those who take Christ to our schools, and encourage you to join me in praying today for students, teachers, and youth ministers to be bold and gracious in standing for Jesus. More than 49 million students are enrolled in America’s public schools. Is there a more significant mission field in America?