The role of prayer in public schools has vexed the American people for a long time. Much misinformation circulates about what students can and can’t do when it comes to religion in schools.

Occasionally, Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn or I are asked to discuss this issue on talk radio. Inevitably, someone will phone in and ask, “What’s the harm in a little prayer?”

I’d like to answer that question on this St. Patrick’s Day by telling you a wee tale of an incident not a lot of Americans know about, but should: A time when prayer and Bible reading in public schools sparked riots, mayhem and death.

The year is 1844. The place is Philadelphia. The country was going through some growing pains. The economy wasn’t doing so well, and tensions were on the rise between recent Catholic immigrants (mostly from Ireland) and “nativist” Protestants – people whose roots in America stretched back to the founding period.

The nativists were convinced that the Irish were taking jobs from “real” Americans. They also distrusted the Irish because of their Catholic faith. Although Catholics had lived in the United States since the founding period, their numbers were just starting to take off.

Despite the language of the First Amendment, many nativists insisted on looking at America as a Protestant nation. Catholics, with their unfamiliar rituals and allegiance to the pope in Rome, were derided as “papists.”

The Protestant majority never failed to remind Catholics that they were in the minority. Public schools were not widespread at the time (and mandatory attendance laws were some years off), but the ones that did exist were often saturated with Protestant prayers and worship. The school day usually began with recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and readings from the King James Version of the Bible.

Catholics chafed against these Protestant practices and asked to be excused. In a region of Philadelphia called Kensington, the school board agreed to consider the request.

Remember, the Catholics weren’t asking that the prayer and Bible reading be discontinued – merely that their children be allowed to leave the room while they occurred. Even that was enough to set some people off.

Rumors were soon flying that the Catholics were trying to remove Bible reading from schools. In response, nativist groups held a series of rallies and marches. About 3,000 people attended one event in early May. Whipped into a frenzy by inflammatory speeches, the crowd soon turned into a mob.

Over the next few days, a Catholic seminary and a church were burned to the ground. Catholic-owned businesses were looted. Several people were killed due to gunfire. It took the state militia to restore order.

Some years ago, I wrote a story about the Philadelphia riots for Liberty magazine, a publication of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. (It’s online here.) I recall trying to convey a sense of just how unruly and frightening this mob was.

“Meanwhile a second mob had gathered at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church at Fourth and Vine streets,” I wrote. “Kensington mayor John M. Scott and some neighborhood residents were guarding the church. Scott mounted the church steps and implored the crowd to go home. He was hit in the chest with a rock. With Scott out of the way, the mob stormed the church and burned it. Again the crowd held back firefighters and cheered as the steeple collapsed.”

One of the things I remember most about writing that story was just how difficult it was to find information about what exactly happened in Philadelphia. This was pre-internet, and I recall that I had to track down an obscure book about the riots – it turned out to be a student’s doctoral dissertation – though inter-library loan. When the story appeared in print, many people contacted me to ask, “Why haven’t I heard about this incident?”

Whenever I mention the Philadelphia riots, I hear that same question again. One answer may be that a lot of people don’t want to accept the fact that something they see as positive and valuable – prayer and Bible reading – could have resulted in such violence and destruction.

But it’s precisely because people feel so passionately about their religious beliefs that the riots occurred. Both sides believed their faith was “right” and “true” – yet only one side had the power of the government backing it up. Perhaps if that side hadn’t had that power, the riots would never have occurred.

Many years later, when that power was finally taken away from them, things became much more peaceful in the public schools. Americans still fight over the proper role of religion in public schools, but most of the time they do it with lawsuits, debates and words – not sticks, stones and guns. The battles take place in courtroom, not in the streets.

We have found a better way. Our public schools welcome children of all faiths and philosophies but endorse none. It works, and we need to stick with it. That, ultimately, is the lesson of the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844.