By: Robin Murray-o'hair
Re: Problem with Prayer Proje
"PROBLEM WITH PRAYER PROJECT'' NEARS DEADLINE
Accounts Of Those Forced To Pray In School Reflect A Wide Range Of
by Conrad F. Goeringer
In the debate over prayer in schools, one group of people is
inevitably left out -- those who were compelled to pray when such a
practice was legal, before 1963, and didn't like it. While prayer is now
touted as the cure-all for a range of social ills from illegitimate
pregnancy to drug abuse, there are those who maintain that prayer did
them little good, and often resulted in harm
Their writings are now being gathered in the "Problem With Prayer
Project" sponsored by American Atheists, an organization founded by
Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a plaintiff in the famous U.S. Supreme Court suit
which abolished mandatory prayer and Bible recitation in public schools.
Now her daughter, Robin Murray-O'Hair, is heading up the Project, which
was inaugurated on May 4. The date is significant -- that day was
declared by Presidential proclamation as the National Day of Prayer.
The goal is to assemble the first-person accounts of those who say
they experienced the negative effects of school-sponsored religion, a
gathering of "personal, true narratives of Atheists and nonbelievers."
The final essays will be printed in bound volumes, and submitted to the
U.S. Congress following the return from the July 4 recess. Eventually,
copies will also be sent to members of state legislatures which may be
considering prayer laws.
The July 4 date is significant as well. Independence Day, 1995, is
also the target for presenting the "Religious Equality Amendment," a
major goal for Evangelical religious activists such as the Christian
Coalition. Descriptions of the proposed amendment talk about "voluntary"
prayer and "returning religion to America's school." The Problem With
Prayer Project, though, suggests that "voluntary" or student-initiated
prayer may violate the rights of those students who do not wish to pray
and end up facing ostracism, criticism, even violence.
The responses and testimonies received by the Problem With Prayer
Project reflect a wide range of reactions. One writer suggested that
prayer in school "all seemed like a waste of time to me." Later, "As an
adult I resent the whole concept of both education and religion where
children have to undergo these forms of regimentation and
indoctrination. I resent pressure to force me into any kind of
conformity." In this case, prayer in the classroom helped to shape the
mind and attitude of a future Atheist.
One writer told the Project that "Although my own parents were only
nominally religious, my early childhood was spent fending off religious
nuts who were continuously trying to force their particular opinions
Still another wrote of the experience of recently graduating from
high school. During the graduation ceremony, the principle said "I
invite you all to join with me now as we make our invocation." The
writer "became angry when a reverend from a local church walked up to the
podium. I felt extremely out of place as my fellow students stood
silent, listening to the prayer. I was not forced to stand, but I was
certainly forced to listen."
Fear of recrimination for not praying, and certainly for possibly
questioning such a practice, runs throughout many of the documents coming
into the Project archives. "If I had spoken out at this time (against a
public prayer), I would probably have been ejected from the ceremony."
Another theme in many letters is the notion of being a "good
person" despite not praying, or not believing in a god. One Project
contributor said that "the lack of prayers in school didn't seem to hurt
me as I grew up. I made good grades, and stayed out of trouble. I am
now an ethical and law-abiding Atheist citizen."
Still others feel an ongoing discrimination at not being religious.
A writer from Illinois recounted his experiences at questioning the
existence of angels back in kindergarten. The teacher "grabbed my arm
and marched me to the principal's office so fast, my legs were dragging
on the floor half the way." Social ostracism resulted in this writer
actually repeating the kindergarten the following year, "but I had to
take a test to prove I was not retarded. The teacher claimed that I had
'brain damage'." He closed his Project essay, saying that
"government-sponsored prayer in public schools is not an issue of the
right to pray but an attempt to influence children of (the) existence of
The Problem With Prayer Project focuses on those who were or are
public school students, or parents and those connected with the school
system. All accounts "must be from your own personal experience."
The bulk of the writings submitted thus far are highly personalized
narratives. Although many writers seem to have experienced traumatic
incidents in their early years connected with prayer and religious
belief, one detects a certain pride in their contentions that they
"survived" the experiences and became successful in later life. Still,
there is an element of catharsis in the accounts. One senses that THIS
part of their lives, while shaping so much of what they were to
eventually become, was rarely if ever expressed in words.
And getting people to sit down and recall experiences of this nature
is no simple accomplishment. The Project certainly breaks new ground in
this respect. We live in a culture where "religious testimony" assumes
dimensions of being assertive, haughty, at times even grotesque. One
thinks of the glaring television screen, and the imagery of a screaming
televangelist promising salvation, peddling guilt, and asking for money.
While many may make a public statement of their religiosity,
though, there are those for whom religion -- and specifically
government-sponsored prayer -- became the basis of social ostracism,
fear, and eventually intellectual skepticism. Their thoughts and
recollections may serve as a warning to those who would return prayer to
schools. And the Problem With Prayer Project, in helping to prevent
that violation of the First Amendment, may also play the role of helping
its participants and contributors come to grips with their own early
fears and beginnings.
(The deadline for submissions to the Problem With Prayer Project is June
17, 1995 -- the 32nd Anniversary of the famous "School Prayer Decision,"
Murray v. Curlett, which ended prayer and bible recitation in the public
schools. Submission guidelines and forms are available from American
Atheists, P O Box 140195, Austin, TX 788714-0195, Phone: 512-458-1244,
FAX: 512-467-9525. For an electronic form, E-mail