By Rob Boston
Next month marks the 49th anniversary of the first U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down officially sponsored prayer in public schools. The decision in Engel v. Vitale was issued on June 25, 1962.
The case is nearly half a century old, so it’s not like it’s fresh news. It’s always something of a surprise, then, when word gets out about teachers who decide to openly defy the Constitution.
Yet that’s exactly what happened recently in Van Buren, Ark. According to the Fort Smith Times Record, teacher Jan Redden of Central Middle School all but turned her classroom into a Sunday school. She prayed out loud before her students, distributed Bible passages and posted Bible verses on the wall.
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You might assume that in a Bible Belt town – Van Buren sits on the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma – Redden might get away with what she was doing. But that’s not what happened. In fact, a Christian parent complained, arguing that Redden simply had no right to meddle in her students’ religious lives.
The newspaper reported that last month, as students were preparing to take a state-mandated exam, Redden prayed “for the Devil to be bound up and not to enter their brains.”
A student mentioned the incident to his mother, who alerted school authorities. The woman told the newspaper, “I no more want her leading my child in prayer than I would want someone from a different faith leading a meditation.”
A second parent spotted the Bible verses on the wall during an open house, photographed them and notified school authorities.
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What happened next is also gratifying: School officials put a stop to Redden’s in-class proselytizing. There was no grumbling and no prevarication. They just told her to abide by the law. That means no more in-class prayers and no Bible packets for students. The Bible verses on the walls were removed.
Van Buren School Superintendent Merle Dickerson said Redden retains the right to pray for the students on her own time – she just can’t lead the class in prayer. He cited guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education that discuss how religion is to be handled in public schools.
“A student or a teacher doesn’t give up their constitutional right when they walk in the door,” Dickerson said. “In my mind, that’s never an issue. The issue is an individual acting in his official capacity in the organization, and it becomes an issue in how it is perceived at the moment. So how you clarify that is to be conservative and to be safe.”
Exactly. It’s important to respect parental rights in these cases. As the aggrieved parent noted, it’s not a teacher’s job to intervene in a young person’s religious life. How, when and if kids prayer (and who they pray to) are matters for parents to decide.
In an insightful editorial, the Times Record noted, “It’s really that fundamental. Parents want to reserve to themselves the right to educate their children in their faith – or in no faith. If they want help with that job, they can turn to churches or religious schools. In the workplace and in public schools, private prayer is the way to go.”
That’s a message that needs to be heard in public schools all over the country – even if sometimes takes 50 years.