What Is Wrong With Prayer In Public Schools?

Absolutely nothing is wrong with prayer in school. There is something ethically wrong with disruptive prayer in the classroom. There is something constitutionally wrong with school-endorsed (mandated) prayer.

We are fortunate to live in a country that gives us freedom of religion (or lack thereof). If you want to pray to your god while you are at school then you have that right. Where the problems start is with the appropriateness of disruptive prayer in the classroom and when the words “mandatory”, “facilitated” or “endorsed” rear their ugly heads.

One also needs to know the difference between the classroom and the school. No brick wall prevents religious beliefs from entering public school grounds. There is a wall, called the Separation of Church and State, that prevents a particular religion’s proponents from endorsing their religion and promulgating their beliefs in public schools where students hold different religious beliefs and non-beliefs.

There is nothing wrong with a student praying silently during class as long as that prayer does not interrupt the classroom environment. The prayer should also not affect the student’s ability to perform in class. Children have every right to pray while they are at school. While it is certainly not against the law for a student to pray in the classroom, it is more appropriate for students to pray during non-class times like lunch, break, recess, and after school.

Better to die on your feet than live on your knees!

Group prayer (student-led and initiated) is fine as long as it does not interfere with other students. Forming religious clubs for after-hours activities is fine as long as all groups have the same opportunities and the school shows no bias toward or against any particular group.

As long as students pray appropriately with respect to others then there is absolutely no problem with it being done at school.

Appropriateness also goes into what is acceptable in public, as well. The children of a Voodoo Witch Doctor know that spilling the blood of a chicken during their prayer is not appropriate in public – much less public schools. Speaking in tongues or praying aloud is not appropriate in public – especially in the classroom environment. The Wiccan knows that getting naked to perform a ritual dance is not appropriate in public – especially in front of children at a school.

Then there is the issue of mandated prayer. Mandated prayer is a clear violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Who is pushing the agenda of prayer in the classroom? The Religious Right and Christian Fundamentalists are the biggest proponents. When is the last time you heard a Wiccan, Buddhist or Jew demand prayer in public school?

Have Fundamentalists really thought this issue through? What will happen when they mandate prayer in public school classrooms? Do they realize that they will open Pandora’s Box?

Because of our freedom of religion, the government cannot pass any law or legislation that endorses any particular religion. Mandated prayer in public school classrooms is against the law.

Will Christians allow Satanists to pray in public schools? Will Christians allow the Wiccan to offer prayers and chants before a high school football game? Based on the information available from the mandated prayer proponents, the freedom of religion for non-Christians does not count. What they want is a Theocracy run by Christianity. They do not want the Muslim and Hindu children to pray in school. They want them to pray to the Christian god.

Do you think they would be as enthusiastic about forced school prayers if their child’s teacher was a Muslim or the principal of the school was Hindu? Have they thought about what sect of Christianity will lead the prayer? Pentecostal? Mormon? Baptist? Catholic? Adventist? Jehovah’s Witness? Methodist? Will the Baptist allow a Catholic to lead their child in prayer?

We have FREEDOM OF RELIGION here in the United States. That means you can believe whatever you want as long as you do not push it on others and it harms no one else (you can’t say that rape or murder is a part of your religion). If you bring mandated prayer into the public school classroom and 85% of the class is Christian, how do you think the Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Wiccan, and atheist children will feel? Kids already deal with enough peer pressure from drugs, alcohol, sex and cigarettes; why give them something else to worry about?

For the Christians; remember what Jesus said, (Matthew 6:5-8):

MATTHEW 6:5-8: 5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

Are atheists offended by school prayer?

When a student prays in private then there is no reason for an atheist to be offended. Even if a student prays aloud, there is really no need for an atheist to be offended. An atheist might look at it as ‘silly’ or ‘a waste of time’, but they certainly should not be offended.

Innocent or an outward sign of proselytizing and public display of religon violating Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:5-6?

If the prayers are school sanctioned or faculty led, then atheists should be greatly offended. Not just atheists should be offended at facilitated, mandated, or forced prayer in public schools – everyone should. If the prayer is based on Christianity, then what about the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Unitarian, Pagan, and atheist students? If Catholics lead the prayers then how will the Baptist and Mormon students feel?

In addition to being offensive and anti-pluralistic, it is against the law. The Constitution of the United States prohibits the government from endorsing a particular religion. If the schools offer a prayer then they have to offer a prayer for EVERY religion. This means we would have to sit through a prayer from a Christian (every sect), Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Voodoo Witch Doctor, atheist, Pagan, Jew, Satanist, and every other religion you can think of. That is not very practical. The best approach for schools to take is a secular approach – let the students worry about their own religious and none-religious beliefs.

Students can pray all they want, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. The school staff and the school in general cannot lead in prayer or endorse a particular religious belief, dogma, or ritual.

The establishment clause (separation of church and state) is there to protect everyone, including the religious majority. The Christian student is free to be a Christian because the government and schools are not endorsing and promoting Islam. The Muslim student is free to be a Muslim because the government and schools are not endorsing and promoting Christianity. The atheist student should not feel offended or pressured because the schools and government are not endorsing and promoting any religion. Well, at least they are not supposed to be.

Pray all you want – it does not offend us. Be polite and do not interrupt the classroom environment (pray quietly) and be ethical and do not rub people’s noses in your beliefs (over the PA system at football games). Just remember what Jesus said (re-read Matthew above) about public prayer and we should not have any problems.

Under God?

The fact that the Pledge of Allegiance contains the words “under God” makes it unconstitutional and a blatant disregard of non-Christian Americans.

It is a common misconception that the Pledge of Allegiance is the same today as originally written. Let us clear up that misconception right now. The Pledge of Allegiance as originally written goes like this:

ORIGINAL PLEDGE: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

This was as it appeared in a Boston based magazine called “The Youth’s Companion” back in 1892. The words were for students to repeat on Columbus Day. The magazine’s circulation manager, Francis Bellamy, wrote it. Columbus Day fell on October 12, 1892 and children recited the Pledge of Allegiance – beginning the tradition of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of each school day.

When do we pledge to uphold the Constitution?

A National Flag Conference in Washington, DC on June 14, 1923, modified the Pledge of Allegiance. The NFC replaced “my flag” with “the flag of the United States of America.”

In 1942, Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance.

In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that schools could not force schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

In June of 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Eisenhower said,

EISENHOWER MODIFICATION: “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

President Eisenhower made the change after the Knights of Columbus (self-proclaimed “Strong Right Arm of the Church”) campaigned for the change (during the era of McCarthyism and the “Red Scare”). Bellamy’s granddaughter said that Bellamy would have resented the second change because it went against his original intent for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Bellamy was the circulation manager for the magazine because he walked away from his church as a Baptist minister the year before. Reverend Bellamy left the church in 1891 because of public views about his socialist sermons and because he felt that the church was bigoted and racist. After he retired to Florida, Bellamy discussed what he was thinking when he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. He said,

BELLAMY: “It began as an intensive communing with salient points of our national history, from the Declaration of Independence onwards; with the makings of the Constitution… with the meaning of the Civil War; with the aspiration of the people… The true reason for allegiance to the Flag is the ‘republic for which it stands.’ …And what does that vast thing, the Republic mean? It is the concise political word for the Nation – the One Nation, which the Civil War was fought to prove. To make that One Nation idea clear, we must specify that it is indivisible, as Webster and Lincoln used to repeat in their great speeches. And its future? Just here arose the temptation of the historic slogan of the French Revolution which meant so much to Jefferson and his friends, ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity.’ No, that would be too fanciful, too many thousands of years off in realization. But we as a nation do stand square on the doctrine of liberty and justice for all…”

The addition of “under God” is a clear violation of the Separation of Church and State. Eisenhower and the Congress changed the law when a small group of Strong Arm Catholics made a stink when everyone was afraid of those “godless Communists”. The Supreme Court has already ruled that schools could not force schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and yet schools continue to defy that decision. Schools have suspended students for refusing to say the Pledge – even though the Supreme Court said they do not have to say it.

The addition of “under God” is a clear violation of the Separation of Church and State. Eisenhower and the Congress changed the law when a small group of Strong Arm Catholics made a stink when everyone was afraid of those “godless Communists”. The Supreme Court has already ruled that schools could not force schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and yet schools continue to defy that decision. Schools have suspended students for refusing to say the Pledge – even though the Supreme Court said they do not have to say it.

The immediate claims on the airwaves were simple arguments and pleading to the emotionalism of Americans. Only those that supported the court’s decision actually had any facts or law to back up their view. The religionists only had emotional pleas and babbling nonsense, such as claims that “under God” was a generic statement and did not support a particular religion. The historical ignorance of the phrase became obvious in letters and on the airwaves. It was not until after a few weeks that the majority of Christians at least acknowledged that the insertion of the phrase in 1954.

Even the judge that ruled against the phrase, a Republican, stated in his opinion that he disagreed with it and felt it should be there, but he had no choice but to follow the law. None of the opponents of the decisions ever mentioned that. Of course, none of the proponents of the decision seemed to mention it, either. It seemed that both sides were missing the key points. Even the media swayed away from the decision and started pinging on the personal life of Mike Newdow, the plaintiff in the case.

I pledge allegiance, to the Constitution, and the rights for which it demands!

If, as the opponents said, the phrase “under God” was generic, then why is it that the decision only upset Christians? Sure, there were the Jews in Congress that were upset, but that was a political ploy – not reality. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, was a good example of this political hypocrisy. He put his personal beliefs aside in order to gain political favor with his Christian voters. Too bad.

Is the phrase “under God” generic or does it promote a specific religion? If you consider the source of the phrase and the historical origins thereof, it is clear that it promotes not only a specific religion, but also the specific sect of Catholicism. It was a Catholic strong-arm group, the Knights of Columbus, who persuaded and pushed for the addition of the phrase during the height of the scare of those “Godless Communists”.

If the phrase is generic then it should fit every religion, as the Christians would have you believe. So let us take a closer look at the way different religions spell the name of their god(s) and write it.

“G-d” is the way that god is written out in Judaism. It is blasphemous to spell out the name of god, so they insert a hyphen. We can eliminate Judaism as the endorsed or sponsored religion because the phrase is not “under G-d”.

Islam uses the phrase “The Father” (Allah). We can eliminate Islam as the endorsed or sponsored religion because the phrase is not “under The Father” or “under Allah”.

Deism believes in an impersonal god spelled with a lowercase “g”. We can eliminate deism and related religions as the endorsed or sponsored religion because the phrase is not “under god.”

Paganism, Shamanism, Wicca, or similar religions use “goddess” or the proper names of individual goddesses. Earth-based religions would not call “Mother Earth” such a sexist term as “God”. We can eliminate Paganism and related religions as the endorsed or sponsored religion because the phrase is not “under Goddess” or “atop Mother Earth.”

Hinduism talks about the “gods” or uses the specific and proper name of the incarnation of Vishnu, depending on what sect you are referring. We can eliminate Hinduism as the endorsed or sponsored religion because the phrase is not “under gods.”

What does that leave? What religion spells god with a capital G? Christianity is the religion that spells their concept of god with a capital G. Christians are the only ones up in arms over the decision. A Christian sect strong-armed the government to make the change. The Christian mindset of fear of godlessness is what setup the environment that brought on the change. These things combined clearly show that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is a direct endorsement and promotion of Christianity by the government of the United States. It is therefore an unconstitutional phrase and the phrase needs removing.

There are many Christians that say by removing “under God” from the Pledge that the government is endorsing “the religion of atheism.” To endorse their concept of what religious atheism is (the disbelief in God), we would not remove the phrase but change it to “under no God”. The removal of the phrase does not endorse any religion or non-religion. It makes no statement either pro or con of any god or goddess concept. The Pledge, without that phrase, remains neutral to all religions.

I am often surprised that Christians endorse the Pledge of Allegiance in the first place. After all, pledge to an icon (the flag) is in violation of their Ten Commandments. Should they not be pledging to their god? Of course, that goes for any religionist – not just Christians.

Freedom of religion founded this country, and as we have already learned, religion does not mean god. Buddhism is a religion without a god and others as well. To pledge to this country by way of its flag with a law written to endorse a single religion (which it does by capitalizing the word god) is a clear violation of the Separation of Church and State.

Of course the issue of forcing patriotism through rote Pledges is another topic altogether…

Harassment of Atheist Students at School

From the Office of Blair Scott
Alabama State Director, American Atheists, Inc.
bscott@atheists.org http://www.atheists.org/al/

March 12, 2007

Report on discrimination of atheist child at Riverton Middle School, Huntsville, Alabama.

My daughter had been informing me of small incidents at the school regarding religious infringement, especially concerning a group called “First Priority” (www.fpoa.org). First Priority was handing out fliers to students and at one point a nurse on the school’s staff confronted my daughter in the hallway before class wanting to know why she was not in the library (where FP is held before school starts).

In addition, she told me that some of the kids were giving her a hard time about her atheism. She said most of it was curiosity, but that some of it was clearly taunting. Most of this we brushed off as innocent childhood bantering.

On February 23rd, my daughter returned from school visibly upset. She told me that the teasing and taunting was getting worse and that it was now occurring in the classroom in addition to the hallways. She relayed two disturbing incidents. In one of the classrooms, with the teacher present, five students began harassing my daughter about her atheism and telling her she was going to Hell. The teacher made no effort to stop the harassment and later advised the principal that she had no idea it was going on.

The second incident involved multiple students that surrounded my daughter and refused to let her go. They began singing “Jesus loves you” to her and telling her she was going to Hell and badgering her about not believing in god. Encircling my daughter was clearly an aggressive and threatening move. The kids were now singing “Jesus love you” every time they saw her in the hallway.

My daughter had tried to tackle the problem on her own, but she now realized it was getting out of hand and she told me everything. I sat down that night and wrote a letter to the principal, assistant principal, student counselors, and Madison County School Board, but did not send it out. My daughter told me the next day that she had talked to one of the counselors and that the counselor told her she had every right to believe or not believe in whatever she wanted and that the students were wrong. The counselor told my daughter that she would talk to any student that my daughter identified.

I called the counselor and talked to her on the phone for about 30 minutes. After the phone call, I decided to remove the Madison County School Board from my letter and give the school a chance to solve the problem on its own. My conversation with the student counselor went very well and she reassured me that such behavior would not be tolerated.

I sent the email on February 27th at 1700 (see Enclosure 1). I received an immediate email from Mrs. Stone, the student counselor that my daughter had been talking to. Mrs. Stone again reassured me that the necessary steps were being taken.

On February 28th at 0750 I received an email from Mr. Medlen, the school’s principal. Mr. Medlen advised, “This type of behavior will not be tolerated at Riverton Middle School. […] Please be assured that this matter will be handled today.”

Later that afternoon I received an email from Mrs. Watts, the assistant principal, who stated, “…everyone is entitled to their own belief(s). I strongly believe in separation of church (belief) and state. I believe that it is the responsibility of the home to teach beliefs and values. Unfortunately, these incidents reveal that not every home teaches values.”

Toward the end of the day I received an additional email from Mr. Medlen who stated, “I have seen every student that I found to be involved in this matter and handled it as a disciplinary referral.”

My daughter continued to report incidents to the student counselor until every student involved had been verbally disciplined once and lectured on the values of religious freedom and harassment. On March 8th my daughter was accosted again in the hallway by students that had already been warned. They were immediately brought to the principal’s office where they were suspended for five days.

There was another incident today on March 12th in the lunchroom where a student tried to get other students to sing “Jesus loves you” to my daughter, but the other students were clearly uncomfortable. He was asking other students if they were “Christian or Catholic.” This student was brought to the principal’s office, but we are not aware of any disciplinary action yet.

From the moment I moved to Huntsville, I knew that it was not like the rest of Alabama. Huntsville is a diverse city with a multitude of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and other dynamics. The actions of the school reaffirmed my impression of Huntsville and were a great credit upon the principal and the Madison County School system.

Huntsville is home to the largest atheist group in Alabama with 80 members and it continues to grow. The two times the local atheist group, an affiliate of American Atheists, has screened movies at the local Arts Center they have drawn the biggest crowds the Arts Center has ever seen.

The lessons learned here are plentiful. The first lesson I learned is that our children, being independent thinkers, will try to deal with and solve problems like these on their own before coming to us. I have sat down with my daughters and expressed my pride in their courage, but I also encouraged them to come to me for help on any matter, regardless of how small it may seem, so they do not have to tackle issues like these on their own.

The second lesson learned is that writing a simple letter can sometimes accomplish a lot.

The third lesson leaned is that even in the heart of the Bible Belt we can sometimes find friends in places we least expect to find them, such as in the administrative office of a local school.

The fourth lesson learned is that it is sometimes better to take complaints up the “chain of command” and to give the lower levels a chance to solve the problem on their own. The less bureaucracy involved the better.

ENCLOSURE (1) (Edited to protect the names of children involved)

February 26, 2007

Mr. Richard Medlen, Riverton Middle School Principal
339 Homer Nance Road
Huntsville, AL 35811

Dear Mr. Medlen,

I am writing about the recent actions of students and some teachers at Riverton Middle School relating to freedom of religion and religious prejudice.

I have two daughters at Riverton Middle School. Their names are (Child A) and (Child B). Both of them are in the sixth grade. One of my daughters is an atheist and my other daughter is a Wiccan. While both of them have had questions asked of them by other students out of pure curiosity, I am deeply disturbed by recent actions that have occurred at the school.

During fifth period on February 22nd there were several children in Mrs. Tomasi’s class that were teasing my daughter (Child A) about her lack of belief in gods. The students were repetitively asking her “Why don’t you believe in god?” telling other students that she does not believe in god, and telling her repeatedly that she was “going to Hell.” While this threatening and harassing behavior is alarming on its own, what was more unsettling is that Mrs. Tomasi made no attempt to stop the harassment and religious intolerance taking place in her classroom. (Child A) has told me that this has happened before around other teachers, but it was during that incident in the classroom that she felt particularly threatened.

On February 23rd (Child A) had a substitute teacher named Mrs. Muddler, who did intervene and told the students that belief was (Child A’s) choice and for the students to be quiet. Mrs. Muddler advised (Child A) to “just ignore them.” While Mrs. Muddler is to be commended for stopping the harassment, telling (Child A) to “just ignore them” was not the right advice. No one should have to “just ignore” harassment.

Also on the 23rd during homeroom several students encircled (Child A) and prevented her from leaving. The students began to sing “Jesus loves you.” (Child A) felt threatened and was frightened because the students would not let her leave their encirclement. Where was the teacher during all of this? Did the teacher not hear the students singing or see them surrounding (Child A)?

My daughter (Child B) has recently had to deal with students telling her that she practices “Voodoo,” which is clearly a sign of ignorance on the students’ part, but is equally a sign of intimidation on their part as well. The idea being that (Child B) is not Christian and therefore is somehow “evil,” which is what the word Voodoo is meant to convey. This type of harassment and prejudice is detestable.

Both of my daughters are emotionally distressed over these recent events. It is worse for (Child A) who has received the brunt of the persecution and intolerance. She feels betrayed by the school faculty because they have failed to intervene.

Perhaps the real problem is the faculty and staff. Both of my daughters have repeatedly told me that on days of “First Priority” that several staff members have approached and asked, “Are you going to the library?” and tried to talk them into going to the library to participate in “First Priority.” (Child A) specifically remembers one of the nurses being overly enthusiastic about her going to the library.

Legal precedent has already been set regarding this action by faculty and staff. The faculty and staff are not allowed to promote or facilitate any religious events at the school or attempt to persuade students regarding religious beliefs. If the faculty and staff are harassing the children and promoting a Christian-based program before school, then it is no wonder that the students feel comfortable doing the same, especially since the teachers are making no effort to stop the prejudiced behavior of students.

Huntsville is a pluralistic city with a diversity of religious and non-religious groups. Huntsville is home to Islamic centers, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, many Christian denominations, Jewish Synagogues, a Unitarian Universalist Church, a sizeable Pagan group, New Age groups, and a large atheist group. The religious and ethnic pluralism of the city and its residents is equally reflected in the students attending Huntsville and Madison County schools. I personally know of several Jewish, Hindu, Islamic, and atheist students at Riverton Middle School.

Bullying on its own is unacceptable, but when that bullying crosses into religious intolerance and persecution it is indistinguishable from hate crime. When teachers refuse to intercede or even actively participate in the prejudice activity, then the issue becomes problematic and an indictment of the school in question.

I should not have to remind Riverton Middle School of its “Beliefs,” which include “Everyone needs to be treated with respect and dignity,” “Everyone needs to feel valued,” and “Everyone needs love, acceptance, support, and guidance.” These are admirable beliefs that on the surface appear to not be in practice by students and more importantly, by several teachers and staff members.

At this point I see no reason to name the individual students involved in the prejudice and persecution of my daughters. I have to wonder how many other students are being teased and harassed because of their religious or non-religious beliefs that we are not aware of. I do know that one of the Jewish students I know of has expressed to me that she has been the victim of the “you are going to Hell” line and at least once has been told that “she killed Jesus.”

This behavior is inappropriate and unacceptable. The fact that teachers and staff are condoning this behavior (if they fail to stop it then they condone it by default) is unpardonable.

An additional line from the Riverton Middle School beliefs states, “Everyone needs positive role models.” At this point, the teachers and staff members that are allowing or engaging in this harassment and discrimination to occur are certainly not in agreement with that statement.

If you find it hard, as much of our society does, to sympathize, I ask that you replace the word atheist with ‘black,’ ‘Jew,’ or ‘female.’ Intolerance of any kind is unacceptable in general and even more so from authority figures, no matter what they may think personally of the victims.

On February 26th, (Child A) found the courage to go and talk to Mrs. Stone about what was going on and Mrs. Stone took positive action to help. After another incident of a student saying “Jesus love you” to (Child A) in the hallway, (Child A) went immediately back to Mrs. Stone. Mrs. Stone talked to the student that was harassing (Child A). Mrs. Stone is to be commended for her actions and taking the positive steps needed to begin eradicating this prejudicial and threatening behavior.

I expect to hear from you on how you plan to address this issue and resolve the discrimination, harassment, intolerance, and prejudice that are occurring at your school.

Thank you,
Robert Blair Scott
Alabama State Director
American Atheists

cc: Mrs. Anna Watts, Riverton Middle School Assistant Principal
Mrs. Rhonda Pearsall, Riverton Middle School Counselor
Mrs. Amanda Stone, Riverton Middle School Counselor