April 2018 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

School shootings have become all too common in the United States. In light of the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stone­man Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that resulted in 17 deaths, most of them students, Americans are again grappling with how to respond.

A number of proposals have been put forth. Not surprisingly, gun control has been suggested. But other proposals take a different tack: They call for ushering coercive forms of religion back into public schools.

Gun control is not a church-state issue, and Americans United takes no stand on it. But we definitely have something to say about proposals to re-impose official forms of religion on public school students. Such suggestions are a grave mistake. Compelling students to take part in religion against their will won’t keep anyone safe; it will only violate fundamental freedoms.

In South Carolina, Molly Spearman, the state’s superintendent of education, made a video for parents following the shootings in Parkland. She assured parents that school officials would do all they could to keep students safe but then added, “By sharing Christ’s love, you could be a positive influence that prevents a tragedy like this from occurring.”       

This is nothing less than proselytism from a government official. It’s inappropriate, and it does nothing to address the issue at hand. Parents, not school teachers or administrators, are the appropriate people to determine what religion, if any, their children are exposed to.

A fundamentalist evangelist named Rick Joyner of MorningStar Min­i­stries in South Carolina offered an even more offensive view, asserting, “When prayer was removed from our schools, I believe that was the beginning of the gate of hell, many gates of hell, that are destroying our youth, our families.”

Wrong. By removing school-sponsored, mandatory, coercive prayer from public schools – the truly voluntary kind is still there – the Sup­reme Court protected the rights of students and their families. It boost­ed religious freedom, and it ended religious rule by the majority.

If we’re serious about shielding our children from violence in schools, we’ll ask our leaders some hard questions and make some difficult decisions. Instant fixes, such as calling for more compulsory prayer and worship in public schools, are non-starters. They fail to treat this issue with the gravity it deserves.