School Prayer

Public vs. Private Schools?

I was afraid to read David Batstone'

I was afraid to read David Batstone’s column ("School Without a Prayer," January 2005) - more public school bashing, I thought; more of "prayer in the schools" issues. His article certainly pointed out some problems, but they were more about lack of challenge to his gifted children than about "absence of moral education."

I taught in public and private schools and then spent the last 15 years of my career training teachers at a university. I would like to assure Batstone and others that most young people going into education are highly altruistic and truly concerned with helping all their students and, in a larger sense, making the country and world a better place.They demand honesty and respectful behavior. If public schools do not permit prayer of any particular religion, that does not make the schools value-free; it just makes them nondenominational.

Sending his kids to a private school will not solve the problems Batstone writes about. Some school districts have programs for the gifted and those who need other kinds of help. If his does not, has he considered agitating to get them? Public education is just that, and it must be supported for the sake of those who cannot afford the private schools.

Lucy Fuchs
Salyersville, Kentucky

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Sojourners Magazine March 2005
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A Path Between the Extremes

1) True or false: Given a homework assignment to prepare a written report on a topic of choice, a student may write a paper on his or her religious beliefs.

2) True or false: Given a required oral presentation in the classroom, a student may express his or her religious beliefs and close with prayer.

As the United States has become a more religiously diverse society and expressions of religious faith a more significant part of public life, these type of questions are increasingly being faced by public schools. How can schools protect the rights of students to exercise their faith while avoiding any official support of religious activities?

This dual objective has often led to one of two extremes—either school administrators have unduly restricted religious expression or improperly imposed it. The proper role of religion in the schools has been the topic of frequent litigation. But there is a middle ground—one which can serve both purposes.

President Clinton and Secretary of Education Richard Riley recently issued revised guidelines for "Religious Expression in Public Schools," offering administrators, parents, and students a set of principles to provide for free religious expression by students and to maintain freedom from government-sponsored religion. The guidelines, said Secretary Riley, are to ensure that "Public schools can neither foster religion nor preclude it. Our public schools must treat religion with fairness and respect and vigorously protect religious expression as well as the freedom of conscience of all other students."

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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Praying for Power

Some Christians have tried for a "school prayer" amendment to the Constitution ever since the early 1960s, when the Supreme Court banned state-sponsored religious activity in public schools. On June 4, the latest attempt—called the "Religious Freedom Amendment" by its sponsor, U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.)—was the first such measure to reach a House floor vote in 27 years. Although it failed to get the two-thirds majority required for passage, the measure and the largely partisan vote (a majority of Republicans favored the measure, a majority of Democrats opposed) holds continuing significance for the U.S. political scene.

The Istook amendment is a case study in the muddy water that gets stirred up when true believers begin playing partisan politics. According to a New York Times report, House Speaker Newt Gingrich met with Christian Coalition Chair Pat Robertson soon after the amendment passed the Judiciary Committee. Gingrich renewed a 1994 pledge to religious conservatives to bring a school prayer amendment to a House vote. Besides the Istook amendment, Gingrich also agreed to push legislation eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and approving voucher-style tax deferrals for private religious school tuition, all before the November elections.

The Christian Coalition spent more than half a million dollars on behalf of the amendment, including radio ads in the districts of targeted members of Congress. It seems likely that votes against the Istook amendment by members of Congress up for re-election will be used against them by both secular conservatives and the Religious Right during the campaign season. Which means that a matter of faith and conscience will have been reduced to just another wedge issue in the struggle for political dominance.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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