Editor’s Note: Americans United in August launched its “Know Your Rights” campaign, a special back-to-school effort that includes the online publication of three guidebooks for students, parents/guardians and staff members to help them understand their rights and responsibilities concerning separation of church and state in public education. (To read the guides and download copies, visit www.au.org/knowyourrights.)
As part of the campaign, several AU staff members wrote posts for Americans United’s “Wall of Separation” blog detailing their experiences with religion in public schools, which were reprinted in October’s issue of Church & State.
We also asked AU supporters to share their experiences, positive or negative, with religion in public schools. We reprinted some of the replies we received last month, and in this issue, we’re publishing a final batch. Thanks to all who wrote in!
Assigned To Write A Prayer
When I was a student at Mabank, Texas, High School in 1960-61, I took a speech class. Every year, the speech class presented an assembly. My assignment was to write and recite a prayer for the invocation. Initially, I said nothing and let time run along for a few weeks. The teacher then asked to see the prayer I had written. I refused to write the invocation and told my teacher that I would deliver the invocation if he wrote it. He did and I did. End of that.
‘Prayer Space’ Panned
While teaching public high school a few years back, I was shocked when a schoolwide email arrived from our principal to let us know that a special “prayer space” was being established beneath the flagpole out front. Students, if they chose to do so, would be allowed to leave class early and spend time in the space with others. My response (to the whole staff) laid it on pretty thick: “Will there be a separate space or time for our Jewish students? Oh, I think we have some Muslims, too. And will fans of our local NFL team be allowed to do the same? How about a Spanish-speaking group or two? By the way, I have a whole bunch of LGBT students in my classes; will they have time to meet?” I received no response; a few days later, the “prayer space” idea was quietly dropped.
Holiday Pageant Goes Awry
In the early 1950s, before the ruling about religion in the public schools, I attended a school that was 80% Jewish, but the women who ran it were not. Every year, there was a Christmas pageant but nothing about Hanukkah. At that time, I was becoming eligible to be on the safety patrol, something I dearly wanted, and my father was the president of the synagogue, just two blocks from the school. It was decided that my father should be the one to speak to the principal. She relented, but she resented this “interference” and so she took it out on little, 11-year-old me: Even though I was near the top of the eligibility list, I was prevented from becoming a member of the safety patrol for a full year and a half. How petty and how cruel. I am so glad that that sort of behavior is no longer legal.
No To Vocal Prayer
During my years in elementary and middle school beginning in the middle 1950s, prayers were said aloud preceding all athletic events, assemblies, and other ceremonies. I would bow my head in respect but raise it again when “in the name of Christ, our Lord” was recited. I am Jewish, and I felt that those prayers were openly and deliberately excluding me and the other Jewish children in the school. I felt left out, hurt, and even a bit angry. When I got to be a mother, and my children were in school, I became quite vocal about making sure no child was made to feel uncomfortable because of any oral prayer being said.
Sent To The Office For Refusing To Pray
In 1955, I was 12 years old and attending Montauk Junior High School in Brooklyn. During assembly each week, we had a Bible reading, but before that, we recited the Lord’s Prayer. I am Jewish and resented having to participate, but woe onto those that refused. They would be sent to the principal.
Awkward Prayer Ritual
When I was in grade school in the 1950s, we were forced to stand at our desks and “pray silently.” I always felt weird because I just wasn’t feeling it and thought I was a terrible person.
Christmas In The Corridors
In the 1950s when I went to a public elementary school in Queens, the students of the sixth grade celebrated the Christmas holidays by singing Christmas carols, as they walked through the halls of the school building for all the lower grades to hear. Not only were winter songs such as “Jingle Bells” sung, but so were specifically religious ones including “The First Noel,” “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and more. In addition, the 23rd Psalm was recited by all grades at our weekly assemblies in the school auditorium. No one objected. I do remember that, on one occasion, a prayer was read during the assembly session that mentioned Jesus, and one of the children told his or her parents, who then complained to the school. Afterwards, the teacher reprimanded the student in class.
Pressured To Join Christian Group
I graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis in 1948. There was a group called Christian Fellowship League. Their page in the yearbook had the headline “Jesus is Lord.” My homeroom teacher was the adviser and she tried to get me to join for all three years.
I have kind of an opposite story from the usual context. I was placed in a small “enrichment” class with a teacher new to the elementary school. The teacher held a series of sessions where students delivered explanations of practices in their religions. One focused on Jewish High Holidays, and another summarized what Quakers believe. We had a talk by a girl who’d lived in Africa with parents who were doing missionary work. I don’t recall an overarching theme, but I found the information very interesting, with an overall impact of religious tolerance. Maybe that was the teacher’s intention.
No Separation Here
Dallas, Oregon, was ground zero for no separation of church and state in public schools. My sons were required to pray before games in middle school, routinely given scripture passages in the hallways (with invitations to Bible groups) in high school, and in elementary school, classes were halted during the day so the children could go to Bible study. When my son told me, I decided to go to speak to someone and find out what was happening. The next day I drove up, and I found my son shadowing a custodian sweeping the carpool lane and was told he had to work if he didn’t go with the other students to the Bible study. The principal said my son couldn’t go to the library to read or work on homework as “he would get ahead of the other students in Bible class.” Needless to say, I pulled my sons from that school district.
Let The Begetting Begin
The public schools of Jersey City, N.J., in 1957, required daily Bible reading during the homeroom session at the beginning of each school day. Our homeroom teacher didn’t read the Bible to us but picked a different student each day to read a portion of the Bible of their choice to the rest of his classmates. At my instigation, each of us selected the parts of the Bible in which there was much begetting; so, for a week or two, we were exposed to all sorts of begetting (which our homeroom teacher wouldn’t explain to us, but we knew anyway). The teacher reacted by putting a halt to our daily Bible reading, and if he got any flak for doing so, we never heard about it. As a 17-year-old, I was amazed at just how much a young heathen could do to influence others who were otherwise religious tribalists.
Christmas In School
When my husband and I with two young daughters moved to our northern New Jersey town in December of 1972, we brought the girls to the public school. First thing we saw, immediately in the front doors, was a floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree.
We lived in that town for 22 years. My husband had volunteered with the ambulance corps, we had participated in parent/child school activities. My girls didn’t understand why some of their friends got to leave school early for Catholic education classes, yet Muslim, Hindu and Jewish children had to attend religious school on their own time.
The Insincerity Of Forced Prayer
I grew up in the Bronx. I did not know that there was a requirement to say the New York State Regent’s Prayer: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” The only time it was recited was in the fourth grade. The teacher required that we memorize it and say in daily. This teacher was a mean-spirited woman: She deliberately mispronounced Italian and Eastern European last names, made fun of my stuttering, mocked a girl who was overweight and said racist things (there were only white children in the school). I think if it had been permitted, she would have rapped the knuckles of children with a ruler who gave incorrect answers in verbal math drills. I did not want G-d to give her blessings. The process felt so insincere. It diminished my sense of prayer.
Reflections Of A Student Teacher
When I did my student teaching in a sixth-grade classroom in Anderson, Ind., I was really excited – finally I’d be able to put into practice some of the things I’d been learning about being a teacher. That experience was generally a good one, except for a couple of disappointments and one serious concern.
My main supervising teacher was a generally nice man, not a wonderful teacher, but not an ogre. But I was seriously concerned about one aspect of my time with him: He kept a large table at the back of his room that was covered with pamphlets advocating a deeply fundamentalist Christianity. Now, I would have been equally upset or worried about a teacher who covered a table with Catholic pamphlets or Muslim pamphlets or pamphlets advocating Wicca, I suppose. But it disturbed me to see any, even indirect, proselytizing in a public school classroom. I have no idea how many of this teacher’s students were influenced by those pamphlets, and I will say that I never saw him say anything about them or push his students to read them. Still, their very presence in the classroom was wrong – deeply wrong, it seemed to me then and even more so as I look back on it. Religion is a family, not a school, matter.
Released To Learn Religion
When I was in fourth grade, many years ago, in a small city in southern Indiana of about 10,000 people, every Thursday afternoon, the whole class (except for one or two kids who were considered weird) left the classroom and walked several blocks along Main Street to the Christian Church where a minister taught us about Jesus and Mary and Joseph and Adam and Eve and Moses and all the rest of them. At the time, I thought little about what was going on – mainly that we didn’t have to do schoolwork and that the minister never gave us any homework. Besides, I was already familiar with much of that material since my parents dropped my older brother, my younger sister and me off at Presbyterian church each Sunday morning for Sunday School, which gave them some time alone.
Looking back, though, as a young adult and now at age 71, I’m disturbed that such a program existed as part of any public school. And now, when I find – partly by reading Church & State and partly from my reading in many other areas – that similar programs still exist, I’m appalled. Public schools should NOT be in the business of proselytizing for any faith, and taxpayers’ money should not be spent to fund schools based in a particular religion. If you want your child educated about religion, do that job yourself or send that child to a religious-based school, but pay for that schooling out of your own pocket, not by picking mine.
School Concert In Church
My oldest daughter was in the choir at our local high school. Each year they would have a sacred music concert, which did not really concern me because there is so much great music that is religiously inspired, but for some reason this concert would be held in a church 10 minutes away instead of in the gym of the school in our little town. This made me very uncomfortable since it created the feel of a church service, and there was a huge wooden cross, 15-20 feet tall, above the stage area.
As an AU member, I knew that this was not acceptable but was unsure what to do about it without causing harm and distress to my daughter and her siblings. Then I saw a piece in the “AU Bulletin” section of Church & State magazine (somewhere around 2010) describing a court ruling that public school graduations could not be held in a church with a large cross, etc. It sure seemed relevant to our situation, so I cut it out, highlighted a few things, and mailed it to the school board anonymously. The concert was not held at the church again, and my kids didn’t suffer any negative repercussions in our very religious, rural community. Thank you, AU!