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Praying for students in Kentucky

Sunday School at a Baptist Church built by miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1946. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — Kentucky could soon have a new law on prayer for its students, and given what Gov. Matt Bevin is saying about their teachers, they’ll need it. But let me not get ahead of myself.

House Bill 40, which sailed through the General Assembly last week, begins by helpfully declaring that “the students of the Commonwealth are the state’s single greatest resource.” And Donald Trump thought it was coal.

Whatever, the next paragraph gets down to business:

The Governor shall annually proclaim the last Wednesday in September as A Day of Prayer for Kentucky’s Students and shall call upon the citizens of the state, in accordance with their own faith and consciences, to pray, meditate, or otherwise reflect upon the students of this state as well as their teachers, administrators, and schools.

You’ll notice that this is not about having students pray. It’s about having other people pray (or meditate or otherwise reflect) “upon” them. Intercessory prayer, to be precise.

Such as what the Republican Bevin proclaimed for Marshall County in January after a 15-year-old took a gun into a high school there and killed two students and wounded 21. Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, for her part, said she “asked God to assign an angel to every Kentucky child.”

Personally, I’m surprised the NRA didn’t ask the legislature to assign each of those angels an AR-15.

But, you’re asking, wouldn’t it be a good idea to encourage students to get into the act themselves? Well, as a matter of fact, last October Bevin did post a video on Facebook encouraging students to bring their Bibles to school for something called Bring Your Bible to School Day. And Rep. Regina Huff, R-Williamsburg, a sponsor of the Day of Prayer for Kentucky’s Students, is hopeful that Kentucky’s students will take the hint.

Plus, Kentucky has the prayer-in-school thing covered. Since 1976 it’s had a law on the books giving local boards of education the right to authorize students to recite “the traditional Lord’s prayer.”

OK, back in 1962 and 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court forbade governments to authorize prayer and Bible readings in public schools. But Kentucky figures it can get around that by way of, let’s call it, civics:

Pupils shall be reminded that this Lord’s prayer is the prayer our pilgrim fathers recited
when they came to this country in their search for freedom. Pupils shall be informed
that these exercises are not meant to influence an individual’s personal religious
beliefs in any manner. The exercises shall be conducted so that pupils shall learn of
our great freedoms, including the freedom of religion symbolized by the recitation
of the Lord’s prayer.

For the record, the Pilgrims didn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. Those intrepid separatists from the Church of England were, in point of fact, notorious for opposing its recitation. You might say that a good way to to teach Kentucky students about our great freedoms would be to conduct exercises that remind them that our Pilgrim fathers achieved freedom of religion in this country by not reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

In any event, the day before House Bill 40 passed the General Assembly, Bevin called the state’s public school teachers “shortsighted and ignorant” for opposing his pension reform bill. Yesterday, Rep. Bart Rowland, R-Tompkinsville, said he considered that a “personal insult.”

“Many of my friends and family are teachers, including my wife,” Rowland said.

I would suggest that Bevin bear in mind that House Bill 40 calls upon the citizenry “to pray, meditate, or otherwise reflect” not only upon the students of the state but also upon “their teachers, administrators, and schools.” In Kentucky, personal insults are no joke.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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