March 2020 Church & State | Featured

When Joseph I. Lieberman, then Connecticut attorney general, decided to challenge incumbent Republican Lowell Weicker for a U.S. Senate seat in 1988, he latched onto an unexpected issue: school prayer.

Weicker, the last of a vanishing breed of liberal Republicans, had played a key role in engineering the defeat of President Ronald Reagan’s school-prayer amendment four years earlier, going so far as to threaten to filibuster it. Lieberman went after him for it.

Sensing a vulnerability in Weicker, Lieberman announced his support for a moment of silence for prayer and meditation in public schools. He called such state-directed exercises “a friendly little puppy that wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

There are people who might disagree, mainly those who have been bitten by that puppy.

Despite what many Americans may believe, state-sponsored school prayer is not harmless, as many folks who lived through it can attest. Students who chose not to participate were subject to harassment, ostracism and violence.

And on at least one occasion, a dispute over school prayer even sparked a riot.

The Philadelphia “Bible Riots” of 1844 aren’t mentioned in most history books. A lot of Americans have never heard of them. But the incident is a perfect illustration of how much can go wrong when the government presumes to direct the content of children’s prayers. (The following account is based on two books: Michael Feldberg’s  1975 The Philadelphia Riots of 1844: A Study of Ethnic Conflict and The Protestant Crusade, published in 1938 by Ray Billington.)

To understand the riots, it’s necessary to know a little about the public schools of Pennsylvania at the time: They were often saturated in a gen­eric form of Protestantism. The school day began with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, readings from the King James Version of the Bible, and sometimes group singing of Protestant hymns. In addition, the Bible was frequently used as a textbook in spelling classes and to teach other secular subjects. Ostensibly secular textbooks might be laced with anti-Catholic content.

Daily Bible reading occurred “with­out comment.” The teacher simply read a set number of verses – usually 10 – without elaborating or interpreting them. Most Protestant groups found the practice acceptable because it echoed their own theology. But that wasn’t the way Roman Catholics did things. They tended to look to church leaders to interpret the Scripture. And, obviously, they did not recite Protestant prayers.

Philadelphia Bishop Francis Pat­rick Kenrick had been working behind the scenes to address some of these issues. In 1842, he made a request to the school board that Catholic pupils be allowed to use their own Bibles during morning devotionals. The board proposed instead that Catholic students be permitted to leave the room.

Reaction to the board vote was swift, strong and roundly unfavorable. Many Protestants interpreted the vote as the first step toward removing religious exercises from public schools. By early 1844, rumors were circulating that in a heavily Catholic area of north Philadelphia called Kensington, education officials had ordered a teacher to stop Bible readings. That wasn’t quite accurate. The officials had merely suggested a temporary suspension of the devotionals to a principal who complained that allowing Catholic children to leave every morning was disruptive. The plan was to resume the devotionals once a way was worked out to allow the Catholic students to leave peacefully. Furthermore, the plan had never actually been implemented.

But the details of the incident were lost in the rumor mill. Anti-Catholic factions then were known as “Nativists.” They had their own newspapers and political organizations, and they soon began whipping up hysteria. A series of rallies was quickly organized to “save the Bible.” One held March 13 attracted a crowd of 3,000.

Rallies continued into May, with the rhetoric growing increasingly heated. On May 6, Nativists marched into Kensington to hear a speaker named Lewis Levin. Levin was heckled by Catholics in the crowd. Shoving matches broke out, and soon men were fighting with rocks, clubs and, eventually, pistols.

Over the next three days, Nativist mobs ransacked Kensington. They burned an empty convent, a seminary and two Catholic churches. A number of private homes were also torched. It took the state militia to bring things under control. During the rioting, at least 20 people were killed and millions of dollars in property was damaged.

As alarming as they were, the Philadelphia Bible riots were hardly the only instance of violence in the 19th century sparked by religion in public schools. In 1854, the Rev. John Bapst, a Catholic missionary priest, while traveling through Ellsworth, Maine, was approached by a local Catholic man. Identified only by the last name of Donahoe, the man was distraught because the town school board had passed a rule requiring all students to read from the King James Version of the Bible. The man’s daughter didn’t want to take part in the readings.

Bapst told Donahoe to resist and seek redress in the courts. When word got out, angry townspeople vowed to tar and feather Bapst. A few months later when Bapst returned to Ellsworth, a mob ripped off his clothes and followed through on their threats. Bapst survived the ordeal, but even though the ringleaders were well known in town, no one was ever arrested for the assault.

In 1859, an 11-year-old Catholic boy named Tom Wall was ordered by his teacher to read the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments in class. When Wall refused, the teacher thrashed him with a stick. Wall’s father had the teacher arrested for assault, but a court dismissed the charges. (The court did go on to say that students could not be compelled to read from the Bible, although it upheld the use of scripture in public schools, ostensibly to teach secular principles.)

Riots and tarring and feathering became less common in the modern era, thankfully. But anyone who challenges school-sponsored religious worship takes a risk. The McCollum family, who in the 1940s brought suit against a program in Illinois that allowed Christian classes to be taught in school, had their pet cat lynched.

The families who brought the school-prayer cases in the early 1960s had to deal with threatening and harassing phone calls and letters – and other attacks. The Roth family, one of the plaintiffs in the 1962 case Engel v. Vitale, had a cross burned in their driveway. On another occasion, lead plaintiff Steven Engel received a call at work from someone who claimed to be holding his children hostage. (In fact, the kids were safe at school.) Police were summoned when his house was picketed by members of an anti-Semitic fascist group, some of whom marched on his lawn.

In 1981, Joann Bell, a mother in Little Axe, Okla., protested religious activity in her children’s public schools. Her home was later burned down by an arsonist.

It isn’t just physical violence. Children have been snubbed at school, and their parents’ businesses have been boycotted. Disputes over religion in public schools, it seems, bring out the worst in some people.

One thing ought to be clear: Despite what Lieberman said more than 30 years ago, there’s no friendly puppy in sight.