At high school graduation three decades ago, keeping my lips pursed shut, I stared straight ahead as my classmates bowed their heads and echoed the pastor’s words, “In Jesus’s name, we pray.”
It was the same silent protest I had performed repeatedly since elementary school in my rural Ohio school system. Pastors led us in prayer at annual Easter and Christmas assemblies in the gymnasium; a Christian band’s singers urged us to proclaim our love for Jesus at a special assembly.
My parents and I did nothing, though we knew the school was violating the constitution’s Establishment Clause prohibiting the promotion of one religion. We were afraid of backlash; we were the only Jewish family in the school system.
My story should be a thing of the past, but it’s all too present: Just ask Kaylee Cole, a 17-year-old from Webster Parish, La., who is fighting a battle over morning prayers and other overtly religious activities at her public school. Her mother sued the teen’s school system on her behalf in December; the case is pending in federal court.
Ms. Cole’s lawsuit comes at a troubling time for those of us who want to see more focus on educating the next generation about many religions, rather than pushing Christianity into public schools.
Ms. Cole, who told her story to CNN in late January, described how some classmates glared at her when she said nothing rather than recite the Lord’s Prayer as it was said daily over the loudspeaker during morning announcements. The suit claims that nearly all school events, including assemblies, have had Christian-sponsored prayer or religious messages. Ms. Cole considers herself agnostic; her mother describes herself as Christian.
The school system denies the allegations, saying in its response to the suit that the prayers were voluntary and student-led. Those claims of innocence ring hollow. But, if the prayers were okay, why then did the school system stop using the prayers in announcements after Ms. Cole’s mother filed the lawsuit?
Ms. Cole’s lawsuit comes at a troubling time for those of us who want to see more focus on educating the next generation about many religions, rather than pushing Christianity into public schools. The national conversation on religion and schools has been heading in the wrong direction.
Teaching about world religions is the better approach, because such instruction can help erase stereotypes of religious minorities and fill a pressing need to reduce ignorance about religion.
And religious conservatives have an advocate in the White House: President Trump has been vocal about welcoming expressions of religion in schools and has vowed to make it okay to say Merry Christmas again — though such a greeting has never been forbidden.
Last year, a mother of a kindergartener sued the Mercer County, W. Va., school system to halt weekly religious Christian Bible classes conducted in classrooms. The mother, an atheist, noted that such classes held in school were unconstitutional. The school system, in response to the lawsuit, suspended the program for a year. A federal judge in November dismissed the lawsuit because the program never resumed. Meanwhile, in Florida, a state lawmaker is promoting a bill that would require all public schools to post “In God We Trust” in their buildings.
And West Virginia and Iowa lawmakers are promoting measures to require elective courses on the Bible in schools, mirroring laws already passed in a handful of other states. Such bills would be appropriate if they were truly designed to improve religious literacy, and the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute has been providing more training for teachers so they learn where the legal lines are (Religion scholars have been creating more resources for teachers as well.) But as Texas’s experience has shown, many of the courses end up using a Bible course to preach Christian values.
Religion does have a place in school: as a part of lessons meant to show various religions’ place in history as well as their similarities and differences.
Teaching about world religions is the better approach, because such instruction can help erase stereotypes of religious minorities and fill a pressing need to reduce ignorance about religion. Americans flubbed half of 32 questions on a religious knowledge survey given by the Pew Research Center.
Those who teach courses on world religions often include another important element: Lessons on the First Amendment. Ms. Cole’s school, for instance, rather than trying to satisfy the religious desires of its predominantly Christian community with morning prayers, would have done better by students if it had spent time teaching about the 1963 case, Abington v. Schempp. That case pitted a 16-year-old atheist named Ellery Schempp against his school system, where teachers lead morning prayers. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Schempp, saying it was unconstitutional for his teachers to lead students in Bible verses. Just like students in Abington, Pa. were, students in Ms. Cole’s high school are a captive audience.
Justice Tom C. Clark, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, laid out what was okay and what was not: Religious exercises led by public school teachers are not okay, but teaching about religion is fine.
Schools cannot promote prayer, because they are institutions for educating, not preaching.
Religion does have a place in school: as a part of lessons meant to show various religions’ place in history as well as their similarities and differences. And, around the country, most state standards actually require schools to teach about the world’s religions as a part of world history or geography.
Those who want to restore formalized prayer and God to America’s schools are misguided. Students can pray in school — that is their right — but schools cannot promote the prayer, because they are institutions for educating, not preaching.
I returned to my school system in Ohio about five years ago, and saw that my school had shed some (but not all) of its past practices of promoting Christianity, and students in social studies were learning about world religions. As a child, I felt like an outsider because peers saw my religion as foreign; now students may know enough to refrain from telling a Jewish girl that she is going to Hell because she does not pray to Jesus.
Linda K. Wertheimer, a veteran journalist, is the author of "Faith Ed, Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance" and gives workshops on teaching about religion to educators.