November 2021 Church & State Magazine - November 2021

Stories From The Front Lines: AU Supporters Share Memories Of Religion In Public Schools

  Stories From The Front Lines: AU Supporters Share Memories Of Religion In Public Schools

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

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 last month’s issue of Church & State.

We also asked AU members to share their experiences, positive or negative, with religion in public schools. We’re pleased to reprint some of the replies we received here. Thanks to all who wrote in – and look for more stories next month!

Teach All Religions

My stepson was always allowed to pursue or research any religion or philosophy he was interested in. He studied everything from Wicca to Judaism, including atheistic views. In junior high school, he came home one day and told us that a teacher was preaching from the Bible in her history class and it made him uncomfortable; there was also a weekly all-student flagpole prayer gathering. I called the school, spoke to a vice principal and expres­sed we had no problem with Bible teachings as long as they also taught from the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Koran, the Torah and Buddhist scriptures representing other religious thought. The Bible lectures immediately ceased. The flagpole prayer meeting was no longer required.

—Lee C.


Praying Coach Was Out Of Bounds

When my daughter was a junior in high school back in 2007, her soccer coach would lead the students in prayer before each practice. When my daughter told me that, I immediately called the principal and protested. I was raised atheist, my wife was raised Buddhist and we raised our children mostly without religion, so I did not appreciate this subjection of my daughter to this unsolicited and unwanted Christian religious practice in a public school setting. After I spoke with the principal, he told the coach to cease and desist. At the next practice, the coach complained to the students that the principal had told her that she could not lead prayers anymore. Fortunately, she did stop doing it.

—Carl W. 


Defying The Supreme Court

I entered first grade at Deer Park, Texas, in fall of 1963. The Supreme Court decision to not allow school-sponsored prayers in class was well reported in the news, and the school openly broadcasted prayers over the loudspeaker anyway. There were numerous violations. The music class taught lots of religious music. Later in my junior high school in Baytown, Texas, my band director was constantly telling us that our generation was not as good as his generation. He constantly promoted his Baptist church, urging his students to attend. I remember there was an assembly with a major evangelical performance by the “Power Team.” It was a group of weightlifters and body builders who preached Christianity. They served soft drinks and snacks. If we didn’t want to go, we had to stay in the classroom and study. In high school, the pep rallies and games were started with prayers. The band directors had the students elect a student chaplain to say the prayers before our performances. These are a few of the violations I have seen as a student in public schools.

—William A.


school prayer 1940

Compulsory Christianity In Florida

I worked for the Hillsborough School District in Tampa, Fla., where I and my family experienced Christianity being forced on students in public school. My children were bullied by a teacher and students for observing Jewish High Holidays. My son was even punched by another student for not believing in Jesus. We informed our rabbi, and he called the ACLU and reported the school. I taught at two schools where the principals played Christian music over the intercom until the first class bell rang, followed by prayer.

—Jeff D.


Jewish Prayers Disallowed

In the fall of 1960, as a senior in high school in suburban Philadelphia, I was thrown out of the auditorium during assembly by my homeroom teacher, next to whom I sat, for the crime of talking during the state-mandated group recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. I had been subvocalizing the Sh’ma, the Hebrew prayer. I was not praying aloud, so she had to have seen my lips moving. I had to walk out past the entire staff and student body. It was deeply humiliating.  Fortunately, the principal was no dummy and apologized. I should add that in daily homeroom, as each morning we took our turn with the mandatory Bible reading, one student would pick a passage and then everyone else would read it on the following days – might be a list of begats, or some stultifying set of rules in Leviticus. She never paid attention. I end by pointing out that we were two towns over from Abington Township, where a certain court case was wending its way through the Supreme Court. (Editor’s Note: The case in question, School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, struck down school-sponsored recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and Bible reading.)

—Mari B.


Released Time Bible Stories

This was long ago, when I was in elementary school during the ’50s. My school had a program called “released time,” which was religious instruction during the school day. My mother made my twin and me attend the “released time” class with several others while the other kids in the class would have some fun activity. We marched down the sidewalk to a nearby church (maybe two blocks away), and I imagine it took an hour or so while some nice women told us Bible stories. We had to do that for a few years, but I was so happy to get to junior high and not have to go anymore. I really never believed all the stories they told, and when I was in high school, I told my mother I didn’t want to go to church any longer, and she told me that the devil had me in his hands. It was devastating to me.      —Marjorie C.


Evolution-Free Schools

As a public school science/biology teacher in the South, I can say there is literally zero separation of church and state. I worked in eight different school districts in two states, and at every single school there were religious artifacts on the walls of the offices, the halls and even in the library. The science teachers usually shy away from teaching evolution and in almost all of them, there is always at least one teacher who doesn’t believe in evolution, refuses to give it any credit and tries their best to use old information to discredit the theory of evolution. I was ostracized terribly in two districts because I am not religious, and in those two districts they found a way to terminate me without actually terminating me. I was forced to stand in attendance for school-wide prayers led by the principals many times and often coaches. Religion was pushed down people’s throats and anyone who balked was ostracized.

—Tracy M.


Government-Composed Prayer In N.Y.

I was a child in the New York state public schools from 1949-1954, when my family moved to California. I repeated what was known as the “Regents’ Prayer” every school day after the Pledge of Allegiance. Official prayers in schools were, of course, struck down in 1962, long after I left. It never occurred to me in New York that there was anything wrong with the prayer, as it didn’t mention Jesus, and all of my fellow students appeared to be either Christians or Jews. Of course, I learned a lot as I grew up, and by 1962 I fully approved of the court decision.

—Emily G.


Punished For Not Praying

In the 1940s, I went to school in Dayton, Ohio. We pledged allegiance to the flag and said the Lord’s Prayer every morning. I felt sorry for a Jewish boy as he was punished if he didn’t.

—Gary B.


A Principal Understands

I am sharing my story because it is funny and because it is one of the reasons I became a member of AU years ago. I am 75 years old, so when I was in elementary school, we said the Lord’s Prayer. My rabbi said that we Jews—and that was most of the class—should not say the prayer, so I sat quietly and did not bow my head or clasp my hands. My teacher sent me to the principal’s office. My principal was Joe Goldberg, who also happened to be the president of our synagogue. Needless to say, nothing happened to me, but I couldn’t understand why my mother laughed hysterically when I told her.

—Frances B.


Majority Prayers And Segregation In N.C.

I grew up in Durham, N.C., in the 1950s and attended the public schools, which were completely segregated until 1959 when I started ninth grade. There were only three Black students in my high school graduating class of 500 in 1963. All the way through elementary school, each day started with the Pledge of Allegiance and either a reading of something from the Bible, a prayer or often both, led by a student. No one was exempt from these experiences. The prayers almost always referenced Jesus, so Jewish students, of which there were few, were excluded. My family was very religious; neither I nor my parents objected to this. Only later did I recognize how discriminatory and even oppressive this practice was.

—Robert B.


Wary Over Pledge Recital

I graduated from Carroll County High School in Virginia in 2016. After they had the morning announcements, we were supposed to do the Pledge of Allegiance, and I remember getting in trouble for not saying the whole thing because I was an atheist already and didn’t believe that I should have to say [under God].

—Destiny P.


Faith And Football Intertwined

I taught in public schools for many years and saw the subtle and not so subtle pressure put on students and student-athletes by organizations like Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It was soon after I retired that a blatant example occurred. I took my high school-age son to see our football team play an away game. They won convincingly, and as we were heading back to our car, I noticed the team gathered on the field kneeling around the coach. They all had their heads bowed, and it was obvious what was going on. I was quite upset and emailed the principal (my former boss) and athletic director that night to express my anger. At first, they denied that the coaches were involved in the prayer, but after doing some research and conversations with the coach, they admitted that the coaches had been leading the prayer.   I referred them to AU cases and articles about this being a First Amendment violation. We had a good meeting, and it was agreed that coaches would not be involved, but students could pray in their own way. So, of course, some of the Bible crowd started organizing “prayer huddles” after the games, and coaches stayed about 10 yards away. Did we win that battle? Well, in one way, we did because coaches/staff were no longer leading the prayers. However, you can’t tell me that a 15-year-old freshman linebacker who wants to play is going to refuse to participate in this post-game ritual. Christian bullying still occurs in hundreds of schools across the nation at athletic events and in other extracurricular activities.

—Ed W.


Quizzed On Baptism

Back in the 1950s in 4th grade public school in Baton Rouge, La., my teacher went around the room asking when and where everyone had been baptized. I had not been baptized and so stated. She was horrified and stated quite strongly that since I wasn’t baptized, I could not have a name, so she refused to call me by my name for the rest of the school year.

—Helen M.


Apology Accepted

During her junior year in high school English class in Texas, my daughter’s teacher announced in front of the entire class that my daughter would burn in hell for not being Christian. I spoke to the assistant principal about this. I was lucky that he even understood the problem. He told me his Church of Christ grandma told him he would burn in hell for being Baptist. He spoke to the teacher, and she called to apologize to me. I told her she needed to apologize to my daughter in front of the whole class.

—Leslie G.  


Miracles In Math Class

During my freshman year of high school (1978-79), I had a math teacher who was a devout Catholic. On more occasions than I can count, we did not have math class, but were given tutorials, slide shows and photo presentations of the so-called miracles she witnessed traveling around our metro area – crosses in windows that could only be seen from certain angles, miracles of various descriptions, things like that. Entire periods of class would be dedicated to these trips of hers, with not a peep coming from the students. Most of her students didn’t care, as they simply wanted to do anything but math. I needed that class but got next to nothing from it. And that exacerbated my scholastic struggles from there forward. I had no clue as to the gravity of her actions and her attempts to proselytize to her students. She was relentless, and we simply sat there without recourse or any knowledge that it was blatantly unacceptable – let alone illegal.      — S.E.R.                                         



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