By Rob Boston
The New York Times ran an interesting piece recently about religion in public schools, making it clear that even though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory, school-sponsored prayer nearly 50 years ago, many problems remain.
In some parts of the country, especially in areas where there isn’t a lot of religious diversity, some public education officials demonstrate great resistance to the high court’s school prayer rulings, noted Times reporter Erik Eckholm.
Americans United has been grappling with this issue for a long time. We believe most public school teachers and administrators are professionals who realize that it’s not their job to preach to students. But there are approximately 14,000 public school districts in America, so there are bound to be some misguided individuals who ignore the law. Attorneys at AU receive a steady stream of complaints related to religion in public schools.
What amazes me about some of the issues we deal with or read about in the media is the incredible arrogance of the proselytizers. In Chesterfield County, S.C., where the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit over fundamentalist Christian practices in public schools, a North Carolina “traveling evangelist” named Christian Chapman said, “I definitely think that we should try to get our relationship with Christ back into the schools. Jesus represents everything we want our students to live by.”
Worse yet, Chapman was captured on tape claiming that a school principal told him, “I want these kids to know that eternal life is real, and I don’t care what happens to me, they’re going to hear it today.”
The principal, Larry Stinson, isn’t talking to the media, so we don’t know for sure what he said. But we do know that this school allowed a fundamentalist Christian evangelist and a Christian rapper to preach to youngsters in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
Now for a thought experiment: Imagine if the principal had said something like, “I want these kids to know that Allah is God, and I don’t care what happens to me” or “I want these kids to know that Scientology has the answers, and I don’t care what happens to me” or perhaps even, “Too many of these kids are fundamentalists. I want them to know that liberal Christianity is a better way, and I don’t care what happens to me.”
Imagine if that school official brought in a speaker to tell the kids all about Islam. Or a Mormon who told them that there is another testament of Jesus Christ equal to the Bible called The Book of Mormon. Or an atheist who told them that all religion is hogwash.
I suspect what would “happen” to that school official is unemployment.
Put aside the fact that these school officials are ignoring 50 years of Supreme Court precedent. Put aside that they are mocking constitutional values. Put aside that what they’re doing is illegal (nice message to send to youngsters, right?).
The real problem with what they’re doing is that it violates parental rights – a concept religious conservatives claim to hold sacrosanct. When principals, administrators, teachers and others who work in public schools turn children over to evangelists or pressure them to take part in sectarian activities, those school officials are saying, “I don’t care what these kids are learning at home. I don’t care what their parents are teaching them. I don’t care what religion or philosophical system their parents have chosen. I know what’s best for them. And I have the right to pressure them to change their views.”
This astounding arrogance infuriates many parents, and it motivates them to contact Americans United for help. AU is eager to assist, and our attorneys never hesitate to step right up. We send a simple, but powerful message to the public school proselytizers: Stop what you are doing immediately – or we’ll see you in court.
It’s discouraging that we still have to fight this battle 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled on this issue, but as we do we always remember this: How bad would the situation be if Americans United wasn’t there to defend the rights of parents and their kids?