When I was a young child in Chicago, I attended a public school called Abraham Lincoln Elementary School. I have many memories from my days at Lincoln, including throwing up on the boy in front of me in line on my first day of first grade (oops!), trying to learn the Dewey Decimal System in the library, hoping they wouldn’t be out of those small boxes of chocolate milk at the cafeteria so I could add one to my tray at lunchtime and dancing to the Bee Gees in a talent show with my best friend Steph in the coolest matching outfits.
But one memory I don’t have is of feeling excluded because I was Jewish. I am well aware, however, that many people weren’t so lucky.
Few issues energize our staff and members like keeping coercive religious worship out of public school, and that’s in large part because of their myriad awful experiences. In last month’s issue of Church & State, eight of our staff wrote personal reflections during our “Know Your Rights” campaign about their own (sometimes traumatic) experiences.
You also sent us your stories. I have read every shocking and heartbreaking word. Your homeroom teacher threw you out of the auditorium for “talking” at an assembly during the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer when what you were doing was whispering your own Hebrew prayer, the Sh’ma. Your child was punched by other students for not believing in Jesus. Your principal commissioned students to bully their marginalized peers by “speaking the truth in love” for Jesus. You were ostracized as a science teacher for not being religious. Your teacher refused to call you by your name for the entire school year because you weren’t baptized.
While some of your stories took place before the Supreme Court’s 1960s rulings striking down state-sponsored school prayer, others are more recent. Religion-in-public-school complaints account for the majority of violation reports AU’s Legal Department receives today.
AU often resolves these violations without even having to go to court. For example, more than a dozen staff members from a northeastern Arizona school district contacted AU after a “Back to School Kick Off” event where Christian pastors shared Bible quotes and prayers, requested that participants raise their hands to show their belief in God and pronounced that God would protect them from COVID-19. Just one day after AU demanded an apology, the school board and superintendent apologized to faculty and staff, stating: “We believe that our staff has the freedom to choose their own ideology and life principles.”
AU has also achieved great victories when we’ve had to go to court. After a school board in Dover, Pa., added “intelligent design” creationism to its curriculum, Americans United joined forces with the ACLU, the National Center for Science Education and the law firm Pepper Hamilton and sued. We won a landmark ruling in 2005 declaring intelligent design unconstitutional in public schools.
In 2019, AU secured a huge win on behalf of students and families in Bossier Parish, La., by reaching a settlement agreement with the school board that ensures protections for all students regardless of their religious beliefs.
Defending secular public education is core to AU’s DNA. Our founding Manifesto, published in The New York Times on Jan. 12, 1948, made this clear. “Next to the Constitution itself,” the Manifesto observed, “our public school system has been our strongest bulwark against the development of religious intolerance in our political life.” The Manifesto vowed that we would “give all possible aid to the citizens of any community or State who are seeking to protect their public schools from sectarian domination.”
As our country continues to become more diverse and growing numbers of people detach themselves from institutionalized religion, it’s more important than ever for AU to fight to protect secular public education. Our public schools serve 90 percent of America’s children. They must welcome them all and model our foundational commitment to religious freedom. They can’t do that if they are elevating some faiths over others and making some kids feel like outsiders.
I hope you are as proud as I am of AU’s legacy of work in this area. The stories you shared reminded me of why that work is so important. Thanks to you, AU has the resources to honor the vow it made 75 years ago – to ensure that America’s public schools stay focused on teaching, not preaching.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.