What is the difference between prayer and swearing?

This was originally posted to the blog that I had while I was a student at University of Michigan, on September 15, 1999.

The viewpoint article “School prayer debate arises in Texas” (9/14/99) in The Michigan Daily suggests that allowing prayers at school functions such as football games and commencements represents a victory for “freedom of speech.” This attitude is mirrored by many advocates of school prayer. The claim is that it is not about trying to force religion on people, it is not about trying to use schools to spread their religious beliefs, it is simply about freedom of speech.

What caught my attention was when the article quoted a school superintendent as complaining that students offering prayers before games would be punished “as if they had cursed,” and the columnist agreed, saying “that is shameful in itself.” Just for a moment, let me ask seriously: What is the difference?

If I want my freedom of speech upheld, I should have the right to swear while speaking at commencement, shouldn’t I? After all, it’s my freedom of speech.

“Well, that’s different.” What is different about it? It is what I want to say, and maybe I think it is the clearest way of expressing myself. “But it is offensive!” Praying can also offend some people.

Somehow, religious people never seem to take seriously the idea that prayers can really, honestly offend someone. I, on the other hand, find it hard to believe that in the end of the 1990’s there are still people out there who get in an uproar just because they hear the f-word.

“But swearing is inappropriate at these functions!” So is prayer, according to the idea of the separation of church and state. This is, in fact, exactly the issue: if prayer suddenly becomes appropriate, in the name of the cause of freedom of speech, then shouldn’t it follow that swearing could also become appropriate, in the name of that same cause?

Finally: “But prayer is about deeply held beliefs, and swearing is not!” Now we get to the crux of the matter: in order for advocates of school prayer to make their position make sense, they need to admit that it is about more than the simple freedom of speech. The “freedom of speech” argument is a mere ploy, used as a fallback, because if they start talking about the fact that they want to use a governmentally sponsored event to tell the world about their deeply held personal sacred beliefs, it becomes clear that this is exactly the kind of thing that the separation of church and state was designed to guard against.

If those in favor of school prayer at school functions want to make progress, they need to identify exactly what it is that makes it different from people who want the right to swear at school functions — and why that difference deserves to be protected.

OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 06: Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos prays before their game against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum on November 6, 2011 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)