December 2013 Church & State | People & Events

A Pennsylvania veterans service organization refused to participate in Veterans Day activities at a local high school because its chaplain wasn’t allowed to recite a Christian prayer before the students.

American Legion Post 311 in Hawley backed out of the scheduled activity after the school district that oversees Wallenpaupack High School, where the event was held, banned the compulsory prayer after receiving a complaint about its practice of allowing clergy to deliver benedictions at graduations.

It’s unclear why Legion members felt they’d be exempt from the policy, but statements made by a member of its executive board might explain why they decided to challenge it.

In a letter to the Pocono Record, Legion member Pat Thompson wrote that he was “disgusted” by the decision to end the graduation prayer. Thompson admitted that he had asked school officials to allow the Legion’s chaplain to pray with students even though he was aware of the district’s restrictions.

“The political correctness in this country is out of control,” Thompson griped. “Veterans are the people who are about 1 percent of the U.S. population who make it possible for the 99 percent of Americans to have the freedoms they take for granted.”

Thompson didn’t end the rant there.

“Veterans Day is our day and all we wanted was for our chaplain to say a prayer,” he told the paper. “There are no atheists in foxholes. Saying a prayer does not establish a religion.”

A local TV station, WNEP, broadcast Thompson reading the prayer he wanted to recite at Wallenpaupack High School. It began, “Almighty God, Father of all mankind and judge over nations, we pray thee.”

This wasn’t the first time a local American Legion post has pulled out of Veterans Day ceremonies over the issue of prayer in schools. In 2009, a Minnesota post refused to participate in ceremonies at a local public school after officials reminded them they could not lead sectarian prayers at a school event, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

In other news involving religion in schools:

• A student at John Glenn High School in New Concord, Ohio, is challenging the school’s display of a painting of Jesus, the Columbus Dispatch reported.

East Muskingum School District Superintendent Jill Johnson said the painting honors a longtime Latin teacher who died while teaching a class in 1971. Johnson denied that the painting, which depicts Jesus amid a field of lambs, is an endorsement of Christianity. She also said the painting is hanging in a hallway that not many people use.

“What it endorses is the life of an individual spent educating students at John Glenn High School,” Johnson said. “It’s a memorial. That’s what it endorses.”

The student, Allison Whaley, disagrees.

“I’m trying to break down barriers and instill a tolerance for other lifestyles, for other cultures and religions,” she said.

• Ronal Madnick, president of AU’s Massachusetts Chapter, submitted testimony Oct. 31 to the state’s Joint Committee on Education for a hearing on a bill that would mandate Bible and international religions classes in public schools.

Madnick said H 382 is problematic because the details for the course are so vague. It’s impossible to tell if the bill intends to have schools teach the Bible as literal religious truth or as literature, Madnick said. It’s equally difficult to tell if the legislation would require the Bible be taught separately – which would place it in a unique, prioritized category – or as part of a general education course on the world’s religious traditions, he testified.

At press time, the bill had not yet made it out of committee in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.