In 1975, well after the Supreme Court of the United States decided in 1962 that government can't organize prayer in public schools, my family enrolled me in South Columbia Elementary School in Martinez, Georgia. I remember playing "Kill the man" during recess. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Duke, had an Elvis poster (was it blue suede shoes Elvis or rhinestone jumpsuit Elvis?) on the wall of her classroom with the caption "I'll rock and you roll."
I also remember Mrs. Duke reading to us from the Bible every day. I don't remember disliking it, even though my parents raised me as a Muslim and I remain so and even though I was an opinionated child who questioned reading the Pledge of Allegiance ("How do you pledge allegiance to a flag?"). The only thing I remembered from the Bible reading was some guy who ran around some walls and they came crashing down, which I thought was real cool.
I'm currently president of the Central Savannah River Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The Atlanta chapter received notification of a possible violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution and Section II, Paragraph VII of the Georgia Constitution by J.A. Maxwell Elementary School, a public school in the McDuffie County School System, which used its Facebook Page to invite people to a prayer walk (screenshot).
I attended the event, expecting a group of church people (mis)led by corrupt politicians who wrap their people-destroying policies in piety and patriotism and the venal clergy who support them. I brought a video camera to record them gathering outside the building, walking around it like Joshua did around Jericho and then saying speeches excoriating the godless hordes bringing down God's wrath on the USA because of abortion or not saying "Merry Christmas" in October or something like that.
What happened was, for me, less frightening and in some ways edifying and uplifting. Some employees stopped working, other employees arrived and several other adults, a few with young children, gathered in the lobby and supplicated God for each other and the welfare of the children. They walked around the facility, stopping at different points to supplicate again. Here's an example of a supplication which was read from a 6-page handout which was passed out to attendees:
I saw no bunkshooter preachers or faux-folksy politicians.
There are, however, at least two problems. The first and most important is that I can't see how a public school using its resources to do or promote a religious ritual is legal. Nobody needs to be hauled off to jail or censured or demoted, but this mistake should be acknowledged and they should pledge not to repeat it.
The second problem is the aforementioned handout. During the prayer walk, nothing was read from the first two pages, but the first page equates "sexual immorality, pornography, same-sex attraction."
The organizers of an event in a government building should not promote discrimination against gays and lesbians, particularly if the organizers are themselves government employees. The best way for an organization like a school or a school system to restrain employees from acts of prejudice against children or guardians or other employees is to inculcate at all levels a respect for the laws which uphold principles of equality. Among the most important of these laws is the separation of religion and government.
A third potential problem is the participation of a supervisor in religious activities. Might subordinates perceive that their careers would suffer if they don't feign the same religiosity? I did not observe any degree of coercion in this instance, but the McDuffie County Board of Education may not want to risk a personnel dispute resulting from an event like this.
The fourth potential problem, especially if the organization of future prayer walks is managed by non-government employees, is a violation of the Board of Education's facility use policies. A non-neutral application of the policies such as allowing a church to use the facility without paying custodial fees while compelling a union to pay for an organizing meeting is illegal. Curiously, the Board of Education Schedule of Fees exempts "recognized civic and community volunteer agencies such as: Heart Fund, Cancer Society, Child Abuse Council, etc."
I urge McDuffie School System employees to learn more about the place of religion in public schools. There is very likely a legal way to proceed that satisfies most of what they seek to do.
While I am firmly on the "separation of church and state" side of the public school culture wars, I recognize that, if one's goal is to support public education and not destroy it (I'm looking at you, Betsy DeVos!), these culture wars drain energy from what should be the real focus, namely helping public schools promote the development of children into healthy, ethical and productive adults. Can we agree to take each other's views into account and then get busy figuring out how to help our children? And, by the way, that's in Georgia's Constitution.
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