Prayer at a public school staff meeting?

Q: Last week was the staff’s first day back at work to start the new school year. Of course, we had a staff meeting, and the principal began by asking us all to bow our heads for a prayer. Honestly, I was too shocked to say anything at all. I work with a lot of teachers who are pretty conservative and probably wouldn’t be disturbed by this. But this is a public school, it made me very uncomfortable and I’m not sure how to respond. Is he going to pray at every staff meeting? Is he going to ask me to lead a prayer?

A: I have to admit, my first response to your question was shock as well. It’s hard to imagine a principal thinking this is a good idea. I’m sure you’re right that some teachers were totally unbothered, but even they have to know it’s an unusual way to start a public school staff meeting. I wonder how many people in the room uncomfortably shifted in their seats, wrestling with how to handle the situation.

There are a number of approaches you can take, some more scorched earth than others. I’d personally start with the direct approach. You’ll be working with this principal all year if not longer. If you can, tell him you were taken aback. Explain that praying is a private matter and that you don’t think it belongs in the school. If you need to spell it out, explain why it’s a loaded subject, and that there’s a reason the U.S. Supreme Court had to weigh in on religion in schools. People practice varying religions or none at all, and praying means different things to different people.

In their official capacity, teachers, school administrators and other employees are legally prohibited from encouraging or discouraging prayer in public schools and from actively participating in this type of activity with students. However, they can meet with other teachers for prayer or Bible study during lunch or during non-school hours. But while that’s an option for your principal, I hope he doesn’t choose to organize such a group. He’s supposed to lead the entire staff and that action could be as divisive as making everyone pray.

You might want to ask him what he hoped to accomplish. My guess is that he didn’t intentionally set out to make people uncomfortable. Did he want everyone to stop and ground themselves in the moment? Reflect on their goals for the year? If so, he could have suggested a brief mindfulness activity or even a moment of silence. There are plenty of ways to encourage introspection without asking everyone to bow their heads in prayer. Your concern about future meetings is also valid. I’d ask him whether he expects praying to be a part of every staff meeting. His response to that question would determine my next steps.

If he’s contrite, pleads ignorance, and says it won’t happen again, I’d probably just jot down some notes after the conversation. That way, if he goes back on his word later, you’d have documentation. You also could confidentially share your notes with someone in human resources. Your concerns will be officially logged, but no one will take any action.

If you don’t get anywhere with the direct approach, you can take it up a level. You can consult with your school district’s attorney or your union representative. You could contact the school ombudsman or the school board. My guess is that most people will understand your outrage and help you put an end to the practice. My hope for you, though, is that you’ll resolve this easily with a courageous conversation.

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PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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