The launch of Americans United’s Know Your Rights campaign has led many of us on staff to recall stories of our experiences with religion in public schools. Some of these memories can be painful, but it’s important that the stories be told.
Here is mine:
I grew up in Omaha, Neb., a city of 450,000, with a Jewish community of around 6,000. My family lived in a different part of town from where most of the Jewish families lived, so my sister and I were the only Jews in our elementary school.
We knew that our public schools weren’t designed with us in mind. I felt cheated that I couldn’t ever earn a perfect-attendance award because being out for the High Holidays counted against me. And my parents had us participate in the religious activities at school – the Christmas concert, the Easter art projects, and all the rest – because they wanted us to fit in.
It felt weird to sing “Silent Night” in the Christmas pageant, but my mother assured me that “it’s just a song.” And when the music teacher in first grade found out about our family’s Jewish faith and decided that I couldn’t be a “skating reindeer,” it didn’t feel so great. Singing “Silent Night,” fine; wearing a reindeer mask and sliding around the stage in socks, not okay. Go figure?
But my personal experience of being a religious minority wasn’t bad, even if we were always aware of being different.
In third grade, though, I witnessed something that has stuck with me ever since.
Where I was the one Jewish kid, my classmate Paul was the one Jehovah’s Witness. Unlike my parents, who had us participate in all the activities so that we didn’t stand out, Paul’s parents weren’t willing to have him go along to get along.
Knowing what I know now, that isn’t a surprise. It was Jehovah’s Witnesses who in the 1940s challenged requirements that public-school students had to stand, salute the American flag, and say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Back then, the words “under God” weren’t in the Pledge yet. That was a product of the postwar red scare in the 1950s. To Jehovah’s Witnesses, flags are graven images. It doesn’t matter what the words of the Pledge are; to them, saluting and pledging allegiance to a flag is idolatry.
In the 1930s, Jehovah’s Witness children who refused to salute the flag were expelled from public schools in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and their parents were put in jail. At the same time, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps for not saluting the Nazi flag.
Paul, in my third-grade class, didn’t pledge allegiance to the flag. He didn’t draw Santa Clauses or Easter Bunnies. And he didn’t sing in the Christmas concert.
Our school had one of those big multipurpose rooms – what they now call a “cafetorium.” It was the gym, but with a stage on one side so that folding chairs could be set up on the floor for performances. At the far end were doors to the lunch line. And there were tables and benches that pulled out from the other wall to convert the gym into the lunchroom.
Every afternoon all December long, we’d rehearse for the Christmas concert. So our teacher would send Paul to the assistant principal, who would take him to the cafetorium, pull out one of those long tables, and have him sit there, all alone, to wait.
The teachers and administrators probably thought that they were being respectful. I’m sure that they never considered how it must feel to have to go to the assistant principal’s office every day – the place you were sent for serious misbehavior.
And every day when we marched past the gym on the way to and from rehearsals, we’d see Paul through the long, thin windows in the gym door – you know, the ones with the crisscrossed wires running through the glass so that the windows won’t break if a ball hits them. We’d see Paul sitting there, looking sad and lonely. And kids would point at him and ask, “What’s that weirdo doing? Why isn’t he with the rest of us? What’s wrong with him?”
I think about Paul almost every day. He’s a big part of why I do the work that I do. I go to court to try to ensure that those of us, like Paul, who don’t share the majority’s religious beliefs, aren’t told that we don’t belong.
Through efforts like the Know Your Rights campaign, Americans United works to ensure that there are no more Pauls in our public schools. I’m pleased to be part of that work, which is only possible thanks to your support.