People sometimes ask what got me interested in working to support church-state separation.
There are two reasons for that. One is that my reading of history has convinced me that combinations of religion and state are always dangerous; they crush freedom, they never lift it up.
The second reason is more personal. As a child growing up in central Pennsylvania, I attended a private Catholic school for the first eight years of my education. We were ordered to pray three times a day – you could set your watch by it.
This was a private school, and they had the right to do it. But as I got older, I started to chafe against the idea that spirituality could be conjured up on command, that it could be turned on and off like a light switch. There were many times when I genuinely didn’t feel the need for spiritual guidance, but I had to go through the motions anyway. These mandated religious exercises were by rote, formulaic and increasingly pointless. Far from a genuine attempt to communicate with God, for me they became just a thing to be gotten through.
In ninth grade, I switched to the public school system. Pennsylvania law allowed for a moment of silence at the beginning of the day, but that was it. You could pray privately in a non-disruptive manner, let your mind wander or just wait for the time to pass.
From this point on, my education was generally secular, although I do recall a few missteps during my four years in public school. In ninth grade, we had an assembly featuring some entertainers who performed silly sketches and songs. For some reason, they ended with “Operator (Give Me Jesus on the Line),” a gospel number. A year later, the high school scheduled an assembly by some athletes who planned to perform feats of strength (OK) and preach about Jesus (not OK). Some parents protested, and an uproar ensued. The event was moved off school grounds but still took place during the school day. Attendance was voluntary, and those of us who chose not to go ended up sitting in classrooms watching television.
On balance, though, I was glad to be free of compulsory prayer and school-sponsored religion. And even though I knew little about the law back then, I had an instinctive understanding that it was simply wrong for public school teachers and staff, who are agents of the state, to sponsor or pressure anyone to take part in religious activity.
Yet I also knew that our school was no “religion-free zone.” One of my favorite classes was an elective I took about World Religions. The approach was strictly objective, and there was no proselytizing. This was the first time I had been exposed to the doctrines of non-Christian faiths. It was an eye-opener.
As public schools around the country return to session, Americans United is launching a new Know Your Rights campaign to ensure that young people, their parents and teachers know their rights and responsibilities. Students can’t be forced to pray, read the Bible or take part in other devotional activities. Public schools can’t teach creationism in science classes or sponsor evangelistic assemblies. Staff members can’t be forced to attend religious events.
Of course, we know these things happen in some public schools. Our campaign is designed to put an end to that. We seek to empower students who attend public schools, their parents and those who work in them so when they see something that’s not appropriate, they’ll speak up — and reach out to Americans United.
The first step is to know your rights! Help us out by sharing this information widely.