By Joseph L. Conn
“As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school.”
That’s an aphorism I’ve seen often on bumper stickers and t-shirts, but I never thought public school officials would adopt it as a matter of official policy.
The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday that Principal Jael Yon of Northeast Baltimore’s Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School scheduled a special prayer service in preparation for state-mandated tests.
According to the newspaper, “For two years, prayer services have been held at Northeast Baltimore’s Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School as the Maryland School Assessments, a standardized test for third through eighth grades, neared. Fliers promoted the most recent event, on March 5, as a way to ‘come together, as one, in prayer and ask God to bless our school to pass the MSA.’”
The Sun said the 30-minute prayer service marked the” culmination of Saturday classes the school has held to provide additional preparation for the Maryland School Assessments. The flier, which included images of praying hands and cited common Christian Bible verses, was distributed to staff to circulate to the school’s 400 students and their families.”
Civil liberties experts quickly pointed out that the Supreme Court ruled long ago that public schools cannot promote prayer and other forms of worship. That would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. Top school officials agreed that Yon’s intervention in religion was “not appropriate” and promised to investigate.
That didn’t go over well with some. Jimmy Gittings, president of the city principals’ union, told The Sun he supported his colleague’s move.
“The only individuals I hold accountable for these injustices for Ms. Yon are the narrow-minded politicians from some 50 years ago, for removing prayer from our schools,” Gittings blustered. “Once prayer was removed from our schools, the respect for our teachers and administrators has been increasingly out of control.”
I don’t know which is more surprising: that one public school principal would think it’s okay to turn her public school into a church or that another would have such a warped view of constitutional history.
Sorry, Principal Gittings, it wasn’t “narrow-minded politicians” who “removed” prayer from our schools. It was the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled repeatedly that the Constitution forbids government officials, including public school teachers and administrators, to intrude into children’s religious upbringing. Parents should decide what instruction their children get about religion.
And, furthermore, the high court didn’t “remove” prayer; it simply barred school officials from dictating it. Students are still quite free to engage in personal devotions as long as they aren’t interfering with the rights of others (or doing it while they’re supposed to be studying for standardized tests).
Principal Gittings has been reading too much Religious Right propaganda. If student respect for teachers and administrators has declined, it’s not because of the Supreme Court’s prayer rulings. The idea that some sort of school-mandated, watered-down rote prayer is going to instill respect in students is simply ridiculous.
I suspect that The Sun article will quickly result in a correction of Baltimore school practices regarding religion. We’ll be keeping an eye on things to make sure.
In the mean time, if Principals Yon and Gittings want sound information on the law governing religion and public schools, they can check out a recent book on the topic on the AU website. Anne Marie Lofaso’s Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights covers this issue and many more. You can download it for free!