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Crucible: a vessel of a very refractory material ... used for melting
and calcining a substance that requires a high degree of heat; a
severe test; a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact
to cause or influence change or development.
-Merriam Webster' s Collegiate Dictionary
In a B.C. comic strip, a child says that God must not be very smart because "He's been kicked out of every school in the country." When another B.C. child sneezes in school, he and his teacher have to go outside so the teacher can say "God bless you." In another comic strip, The Wizard of Id, Sir Rodney reports a small boy to the king for trying to smuggle a Bible into school in his shoulder holster. A teenager in the comic strip Kudzu earns As for not bringing weapons to school, not smoking, and not using drugs, but he gets an F in "Not Praying." Bumper stickers, talk shows, political speeches, and late-night comedy monologues all spread the same message: God has been kicked out of the public schools, and the mere mention of religion will bring the Supreme Court swooping down like the Monty Python version of the Spanish Inquisition. Such assertions, which many Americans accept as common knowledge, are catchy, emotionally compelling, and wildly misleading.
GETTING DOWN TO SPECIFICS
Consider three recent incidents involving religion in the public schools.
A devout Christian student organizes and leads a prayer meeting in the school's lobby before class each morning. Approximately thirty-five students voluntarily join him in reading the Bible and praying before going to their homerooms.
Sixth-graders are upset because a classmate has died, and their teacher tells them that they need fear nothing because Jesus will save them. She lays her hands on their heads and prays for them.
A first-grade teacher allows students to read aloud from books they bring from home. When one little boy comes in with The Beginner's Bible, the teacher has him read from it to her alone, not to the whole class.
Many Americans might assume that the first two examples are unlawful because they involve a connection between religion and public education, whereas the teacher in the third example either acted correctly or should have rejected the Bible reading altogether. In reality, the situation is more complex than that. Beginning in the early 1960s, the Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down government-sponsored religious observances, such as state-mandated Bible reading and prayer, while upholding the right of individual students to engage in religious speech on their own initiative.
Based on this distinction between the actions of school officials and those of students, the Court's decisions pose no obstacle to the first situation described above, in which a before-school prayer circle was organized by a student named Ben Strong at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky. This circle received national attention under tragic circumstances in December 1997, when some of its members were gunned down by a schoolmate who was subsequently subdued by Strong. According to newspaper accounts, the prayer circle was operated entirely by students and took place when they were not in class and were free to talk about any subject of their choice. There was no indication that any student was coerced to participate or that teachers or administrators were involved. If all this is true, then school officials would have no obligation-and, indeed, no right-to act as "prayer police," permitting students to talk about sports, music, politics, and other secular subjects but silencing any mention of religion. Such discrimination with regard to the students' private speech would represent hostility toward religion, not the governmental neutrality mandated by the Constitution.
By contrast, the second example presented here involves a teacher-initiated, teacher-run religious exercise that clearly conflicts with the Supreme Court decisions discussed throughout this book. At the center of the controversy was Mildred Rosario, a substitute teacher at Intermediate School 74 in the Bronx, who described herself as a born-again Pentecostal Christian. Her purpose, she later explained, was to console her grieving students by giving them hope in Jesus following the drowning death of their classmate. Although the impromptu prayer service she conducted in June 1998 took place during class time, she felt that she had adequately protected her students' religious liberty by telling them that if they preferred not to pray they could work on the computers in the back of the room or read a book. No one did so, but one student, a Jehovah's Witness, later complained that she had been uncomfortable with the prayers but had felt constrained to stay in her seat. Rosario was fired over the protests of political figures, such as Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who called for the return of religion and morality to the crime-wracked public schools.
By far the most difficult of the three examples is the last, which combines student initiative with the actions of school officials. It arose in Medford Township, New Jersey, where first-grade teacher Grace Oliva rewarded proficient readers by allowing them to bring their favorite books from home to read aloud in class. Among the students thus selected was Zachary Hood, who brought in a children's version of the Bible and proposed to read the story of Jacob and Esau. When Oliva prevented him from reading it to the other students, his mother, Carol Hood, filed suit. The federal district court dismissed the complaint, saying among other things that if Oliva had allowed Zachary to read a Bible story to the class, her six-year-old students might well have formed the impression that she approved of it as a religious text-an impression that might have been strengthened had she said something like "Very good" at the end of the reading. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld this decision, but when all fourteen Third Circuit judges subsequently reviewed it, they tied. This outcome, which had the effect of sustaining the earlier ruling, illustrates the difficulty of balancing a student's right to express religious views against the school's obligation to avoid endorsing or hindering the beliefs of either the speaker or the listeners.
Not surprisingly, much of the current debate over prayer in public schools involves gray-area situations of this kind, in which the overlapping actions of students and school officials give rise to substantial disagreement about where the lines should be drawn with respect to religious activity. In a case discussed in Chapter Thirteen, for instance, a high school principal suggested to student council members that they could have daily prayers if they asked to do so, whereupon they made the request. Do those prayers qualify as student-initiated, or were they the result of the principal's action? In a similar case, the parents of young children wished to have them participate in before-school-prayer services run by older students. Is it lawful for teachers to escort them as a group? As these examples suggest, the current standard for dealing with religion in the public schools, which might be summarized as "Student-Run Prayer Good; School-Run Prayer Bad," is by no means as clear-cut as it might appear. Moreover, transcending concerns about its application to specific situations is the larger question of whether, if it could be carried out perfectly in practice, this standard would be the best one to use.
In order to assess the present approach to school prayer in an informed way, it is essential to understand why and how it came to be what it is. As its complexity and uncertainties suggest, it was not conceived in ivory-tower serenity as a sort of Platonic ideal of religion in the public schools. Rather, it represents the outcome of more than a century of raucous push-and-pull among warring interests and viewpoints whose adherents have fought each other in the courts, in the legislatures, and sometimes in the streets. Diverse though their immediate catalysts have been, these disputes have tended to converge into a gradual movement, always uneven and to this day incomplete, from a highly majoritarian view of school prayer toward an increasing deference to individual choice. At the majoritarian end of this continuum lie the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century events discussed in the next few chapters, in which schoolchildren were routinely beaten and expelled for refusing to read the King James Bible. At the individualist end of the continuum or, more accurately, at the point we have presently reached in an ongoing process, is the widespread assumption that private choice is the gold standard in matters of religion, whereas the faintest hint of encouragement or inhibition by state or school officials is sufficient at least to raise questions. This book is, in the simplest terms, a map of the social, political, and legal road that American public schools have traveled in their journey from there to here.
Most of the historical context for this study is provided in Chapters Two and Three, which deal with the earliest controversies over religious expression in American public schools-and the most violent. A particularly noteworthy example is an 1844 dispute between Catholics and Protestants in which more than twenty people were killed, including an unlucky bystander whose head was shot off by a stray cannonball. These chapters attempt to convey the tone and intensity of such conflicts as recorded in nineteenth-century newspapers and public debates as well as in earlier scholarship. They do not claim to break new ground; rather, they strive to inform some readers and remind others of the school-prayer practices prevailing in this country prior to the Civil War, together with the sometimes bloody controversies they engendered.
Dramatic as the street fights of the nineteenth century were, they could not be sustained in the face of opposition to religious violence by the majority of Americans of all faiths. By the early twentieth century, conflicts over religion in the public schools took the form of state court proceedings, several of which are discussed in Chapter Four. Although the rulings of the various state courts were far from unanimous, they suggested a trend toward rejecting government-enforced majoritarian religious exercises, at least in some parts of the country. Then, as Chapters Five and Six explain, this standard abruptly became the law of the land when the Supreme Court handed down a series of landmark decisions declaring that religion in the public schools, previously regulated solely by state law, is subject to the U.S. Constitution and federal law. State sponsored religious instruction and devotional exercises, once considered sacrosanct and untouchable, were now forbidden throughout the country.
These Supreme Court decisions of the 1950s and 1960s, which represent the first of two watersheds in the treatment of religious expression in American public schools, also mark the transition from the background chapters of this book to its main subject: the evolution of thought on religion in the public schools since it became a federal matter. From this point on, the book is based almost entirely on court documents, including not only decisions but also depositions, affidavits, exhibits, and transcripts of hearings and trials; congressional materials, including the Congressional Record, transcripts of congressional hearings, and "Dear Colleague" letters exchanged among members of Congress; lobbying letters and talking points prepared by advocacy groups for use with members of Congress, together with newsletters and appeals for funds; and news reports. In addition, the chapters dealing with relatively recent events incorporate material from interviews with members of Congress, parties and attorneys in lawsuits, advocacy-group lawyers and lobbyists, and other participants in the contemporary school-prayer debate. Their firsthand recollections, often humorous or poignant, add a sense of immediacy and a human-interest dimension to documentary material that might otherwise seem more academic than real.
Following the discussion of the Supreme Court's early school-prayer decisions in Chapters Five and Six, the next three chapters deal with attempts to restore traditional public-school devotionals either through a constitutional amendment or by limiting the power of the federal courts to decide school-prayer cases. Since school prayer was highly popular, then as now, it seemed at first as if those efforts must succeed. Nevertheless, a schism soon developed between people who favored a return to the precise situation that had existed before the Supreme Court's rulings and those who thought that some adjustments were in order. In particular, many religious people drew back from endorsing any proposal that would once again allow students to be penalized for declining to participate in majoritarian religious practices, and some of them even questioned whether the state should be in the business of prescribing prayers at all. Consequently, no proposed constitutional amendment attracted enough votes to pass either House of Congress-a result attributable in no small part to the persistence of dedicated traditionalists who fought for a greater degree of majoritarian rule in religious matters than the Vietnam-era public was prepared to accept. The same was true of proposals to curb the power of the federal courts to decide cases dealing with certain hot-button topics, including school prayer. Even if Congress has the authority to bring about this result, which is far from being a settled question, such proposals are too far from the median of American thought to garner the necessary support.
In the course of discussing reactions to the Supreme Court's early school-prayer rulings, these chapters also introduce the book's detailed treatment of the crucial role played by advocacy groups in the debate over religious expression in the public schools. Such organizations, which have been active in this matter since the early nineteenth century, came to prominence when attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, and other groups filed the federal lawsuits that led to the nationwide banning of state-sponsored religious exercises. Their success was one of the factors that inspired the establishment of similar advocacy groups, such as People for the American Way, as well as opposing organizations, such as the Moral Majority, Concerned Women for America, and the American Center for Law and Justice. (Descriptions of advocacy groups active in the school-prayer debate appear in the Appendix.)
Excerpted from The Fourth R by JOAN DelFattore Copyright © 2004 by Joan DelFattore. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|2||The Past That Never Was||12|
|3||Religion as a Team Sport||32|
|4||Off the Streets and Into the Courts||52|
|5||Stalin and School Prayer||67|
|6||The Myth of Madalyn Murray O'Hair||82|
|7||Picnic with a Tiger||106|
|8||Beware of the Leopard||127|
|9||Full Court Press||144|
|10||The Rest Is Silence||161|
|11||Caution! Paradigms May Shift||178|
|12||Perkin's Last Stand||199|
|14||The School and the Rabbi||255|
|15||Zen and the Art of Constitution Maintenance||284|
|16||Deliver Us from Evil||299|