Schoolprayer: A Community at War

SCHOOLPRAYER: A COMMUNITY AT WAR
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About Film

‘The ACLU is to the Christian faith what the Nazi was to the Jew.’ Few viewers will fail to feel a chill when one stoic Mississippi resident proclaims. Evenhanded and never sensational, the film hold a mirror to religious intolerance and presents a complex, poignant and truly terrifying reflection.

David Bahr, TimeOut New York

Emmy Award Winner documentary

A Mississippi mother of six sues her local school district to remove intercom prayer and Bible classes from the public schools. Christian community members rally against her to protect their time-honored tradition of religious practices in the schools. Both sides claim they are fighting for religious freedom.

In 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that school-sanctioned prayers and devotional Bible readings in public school classrooms are indisputably unconstitutional. This ruling is ignored every day, especially in the South.

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Lisa Herdahl, is one woman who objects, and her case epitomizes the conflict. In her public school district, teachers have been leading children in Christian prayers and using the Bible as a history text. While Mrs. Herdahl accepts these practices in Sunday schools, she has sued to remove them from the taxpayer-supported school district of Pontotoc County. She is represented by attorneys from national civil liberties groups, while her opposition is supported by grassroots community donations and conservative Christian organizations.

The Herdahls pay a great price for trying to enforce Constitutional law. Their family lives with death threats, ostracism, and harassment. Lisa cannot find employment in the area, and members of the community have been warned not to support her. Having lost half of their income, the Herdahls live below the poverty line. Yet despite the backlash from the community, Lisa continues to struggle for the constitutional rights of her family.

The lawsuit has had tremendous impact on the Pontotoc community a community with low crime and divorce rates whose residents credit their enviable living conditions to their Christian way of life. As the Reverend Doug Jones, a local Southern Baptist minister, says, “[School prayer is] as much a part of us as baseball, apple pie, and mama.” The people of Pontotoc have rallied to show their support for school prayer, and ribbons and yard signs adorn homes, schools, and even the county courthouse.

While many citizens are simply God-fearing people who value reverence, others display bigotry and hatred. Some local preachers claim Lisa is controlled by the devil. Others have suggested that Lisa Herdahl, who moved to Mississippi from Wisconsin in 1993, has been planted by the ACLU to rid Pontotoc County of its tradition of prayer in schools.

In June 1996, a federal judge ruled that intercom prayers and Bible history classes were unconstitutional. However, the decision has done little to mitigate the debate. Mrs. Herdahl’s victory in court imposes her will on a community in which prayer and religious instruction have been part of the school day for at least eighty years.

Pontotoc leaders, school officials, parents, and school children are determined to continue their religious activities. To compensate for the loss of prayer over the intercom, student-initiated prayers are held daily in the Pontotoc school gymnasium. To comply with the judges ruling, these prayers are recited 10 minutes prior to the official start of the school day.

The lengthy and expensive legal battle over school prayer has brought about another legal standoff. Lisa Herdahl has sued the school district for compensation of legal costs, and the community is outraged. The judge’s ruling in favor of Mrs. Herdahl for $144,000 could bankrupt the school district. And the community finds idea of raising money to pay the legal fees of organizations contributing to the removal of their religious practices in school infuriating.

This case extends far beyond the boundaries of the courtroom and has shattered the harmony and tranquillity of many lives. The once isolated community of Pontotoc County is now the center of a battle between Christian culture and the secular law of the land. As this controversy unfolds in rural Mississippi, it calls attention to the heated issues involved in the national debate over school prayer. With the growing political influence of the Christian right in America and the prospect of a new Constitutional amendment supporting school prayer, this poignant human interest story has national importance.

Credits

Directed by:
Slawomir Grunberg

Produced by:
Slawomir Grunberg & Ben Crane

In association with:
Independent Television Service (ITVS)

Executive Producer:
James T. Yee (ITVS)

Editor:
Jason Longo

Written by:
Ben Crane

Associate Producer:
Jane Greenberg

Photography:
Slawomir Grunberg

Sound:
Jason Longo

Additional Sound:
Jane Greenberg

Post Production Assistant:
Brian Truglio

Consultants:
Dr. Robert Alley, Dr. Jon Butler, Dr. Ronald Flowers, Dr. Isaac Kramnick, Dr. T.W. Lewis, III, Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr., Dr. Laurence Moore, Dr. Jacob Neusner, Dr. Nanette Roberts & Thayer Warshaw

Closed Captioning:
Pillar to Post

Pre-recorded Video Supplied By:
CBS News Archives
WCBI-TV
WTVA-TV
Cable News Network, Inc.

Special Thanks:
Terry Abernethy, Cherry Creek MB Church, Russell Cook, Ecru Baptist Church, Experimental TV Center, Grace Assembly of God, John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, David Helms, Sherry Miller Hocking, Jef Judin, Joseph Leeming, Allie Martin, Rob McDuff, Larry Miller, Jill Montgomery, Mississippi Educational Network, North Pontotoc Attendance Center, Brother Joe Shelton, David Simpson, Teleproductions Resource Center, University of Mississippi, Thaxton United Methodist Church, Victory Baptist Church & Jerry Williams

“Let Us Pray”
written and performed by Billy Nelson

Major Funding For This
Program Provided By:

Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Additional Funding Provided By:
The Soros Documentary Fund
The New York State Council on the Arts

Screenings and Awards

SCREENINGS

• Screen Justice – Documentary Films on Law and Society, University of the District of Columbia, Washington DC – screening and Q&A with director, 2006

• The Dean William Parks Colloquium at Christopher Newport University, VA – screening and Q&A with director, 2005

• Human Rights in Film IFF, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, 2001

• X International Documentary Film Festival Portugal, 1999

• Louisville Film and Video Festival Louisville, KY, 1999

• Athens International Film and Video Festival Athens, Greece, 1999

• Human Rights Watch Film Festival, 1999

• New York Lower East Side Film Festival, 1999

• Double Take Film Festival, 1999

• Leipzig International Film Festival, Leipzig, Germany, 1998

AWARDS

• Emmy Award Winner, Outstanding Coverage of a Continuing News Story (2000)

• Jan Karski Competition Winner (2000)

• Best of the Festival, Hope and Dreams Film Festival (1999)

• The Bronze Plaque, Columbus International Film & Video Festival (1999)

• A Bronze Award, Flagstaff International Film Festival (1999)

Broadcast History

• School Prayer: A Community at War premiered July 20, 1999 on the PBS series POV.

Reviews and Reactions

Emmy Award Winner : Outstanding Coverage of a Continuing News Story (2000)

Press Reviews

The heroine of “School Prayer: A Community at War” is Lisa Herdahl, a woman who took on a Mississippi town in her fight against the religious messages broadcast daily over the local high school’s intercom. But what makes this P.O.V documentary more then a familiar celebration of civil liberties is its portrait of townsfolk. Depending on a vier’s attitude toward such matters, they can be seen as a pious community trying to maintain deeply held values or as people who have done more Bible reading than reading of the Constitution.
Walter Goodman
The New York Times

We see all sides, with no self-righteousness. We also see how religion can end up dividing neighbors and wounding community.
John Leonard
New York Magazine

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School Prayer is so fair to both sides, it actually might help them find some common ground.
Noel Holston
Minneapolis Star Tribune

The independent, non fiction films on PBS’s “P.O.V.” series usually make that acronym which stands for point of view-their mission, offering up reasons why viewers should lean toward one side of an issue. But a film airing at 10pm Sunday makes a point of not presenting one side over the other, and viewers likely will come away from “School Prayer: A community at War” with an appreciation for both sides.
Diane Richer
Denver Post

The P.O.V. film gives both viewpoints-in schools and churches, at protests and relies. The word is that the filmmakers present Southerners as people with sincere beliefs, not as stereotypes. That point of view alone should be worth seeing.
Gary Pettus
Clarion-Ledger

The film avoids the talking-head approach and instead shows school officials, ministers, local activists, the local and national media as well as children in everyday situations. People expound from school hallways, the pulpit, at roadside protests, outside a courthouse and at post-trial rallies… This show-and-not-tell technique helps the filmmakers stay true to their desire for balance.
Adam Bernstein
Washington Post

The Pontotoc school prayer battle, as captured by School Prayer: A Community at War, is according to PBS ‘an intense ideological and legal struggle over the meaning of religious liberty in America’ that is ‘documented with respect and candor’ All of which is true on some level. The debate over the role and jurisdiction of church and state is a foundation element of American society, and the film itself has been crafted with every degree of balance, objectivity, and distance that one would expect from a public television production. But despite all of the fair-minded sobriety brought to bear, what finally emerges is something both slighter and richer then the filmmakers likely intended. Portions of School Prayer play like a live action episode of the Simpsons – tortured reasoning and inane sound bites adding up to accidental satire on quintessentially American know-nothingism.
The Memphis Flyer

A particularly striking portrait of an individual fighting overwhelming odds is found in Slawomir Grunberg and Ben Crane’s film School Prayer: A Community at War… this is a frightening portrait of the tyranny of fundamentalism of any kind, and a reminder that individuals can and do have a significant impact on larger social issues.
David Zeigler
International Documentary

Making incisive use of the case’s Oprah-driven national media footprint and the NATO-like invasion of ACLU lawyers, School Prayer manages to be unexpectedly fair doc, letting its holly-roller antagonists make a legitimate points about how class and religion shape debates about “American” values even as they spew noxious brimstone.
Gary Dauphin
The Village Voice

School Prayer shows that the issues driving this conflict have far deeper roots than the habits of one small town school system… It is extremely rare to see this aspect of American culture portrayed with empathy, but School Prayer does so, without endorsing it…. School Prayer demonstrates how insularity, insecurity and injustice can be fed by growing contact with the wider world…. it testifies to the malignant, long range effects of slavery and colonialism in Southern culture
Pat Aufderheide
In These Times

I don’t think you have to take sides when you do a documentary’, Slawomir Grunberg said. His latest film is about a woman in Mississippi who takes on the local school board to stop open preaching in the town’s schools. ‘Obviously I came with a certain predisposition, but I didn’t come with a strong one-side position.
Beth Pinsker
FORWARD

Evenhanded and never sensational, the film hold a mirror to religious intolerance and presents a complex, poignant and truly terrifying reflection. Few viewers will fail to feel a chill when one stoic Mississippi resident proclaims, ‘The ACLU is to the Christian faith what the Nazi was to the Jew.

David Bahr
TimeOut New York

Amazingly, Grunberg and company were able to film just about every key player on both sides of this hottest of hot-button issue, and the story just gets more and more bizzare as the trial approaches. School Prayer: A Community at War is an outrageous Orwellian look into a world as alien to most of us as it is terrifying for Herdahl and her family.
Bryan VanCampen
Ithaca Times

Audience Reactions

I appreciate that this was not a totally one-sided documentary, although it did seem to show some partiality to the ACLU. The ACLU is an organization that seeks to eliminate any public religious activity. Their spin has duped many fine but gullible people. They exploit fear and ignorance to advance their own frightening agenda. They use their enormous wealth and power to strong-arm the poor and timid. A quote from the documentary, “The ACLU s to Christians what the NAZIs were to Jews,” is not far off the mark.
Kaye
Roanoke, VA

You said Ms. Herdahl and her family were “forced” to move. That is a complete lie. Ms. Herdahl and her family were renting a home on Highway 15 in Pontotoc County. The home a needed a numerous amount of repairs at the time Ms. Herdahl moved into it and the home owner told Ms. Herdahl that he did not feel like it would be worth it to do the repairs. Ms. Herdahl used the money from the ACLU (THEY DID PAY HER!) and purchased a new mobile home. I do not appreciate the fact that you are all so one sided. Our school district and Ms. Herdahl basically came to an agreement. You fail to mention on your website that while the prayers are still being done in another room, who happens to attend? Why, Ms. Herdahl’s children themselves go to these student led devotionals.
Angie
Pontotoc County

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Thank you for the excellent documentary. I do not blame Ms. Herdahl at all for what she did. I respect her tenacity. I believe that the Supreme Court decided in Murray vs. Cuttlett that school prayer is unconstitutional.
MarcKay@aol.com

I watched your documentary intently. I considered it to be a remarkably fair and balanced treatment of the controversy. The criticisms by one of the respondents that you were one-sided are unfounded in my opinion. I am a Roman Catholic of Irish descent. My ancestors came to this country to escape famine and persecution by the British in Ireland. They were forced to tithe to a church that they did not believe in and would not participate in. When they came to this country, they were forced to participate in prayers and readings from the King James version of the Bible when they attended public schools. The King James version of the Bible was on the Vatican’s “Index,” a list of books that the Church considered sinful for Catholics to read (which was abolished after the Second Vatican Council in 1962). As a result, parochial Catholic schools were established in this country. Not only so they could freely practice their religion, but also to avoid being forced into doing something their church cons idered sinful. I myself attended Catholic schools for all but one year of my education. My parents felt strongly that prayer and religious instruction should be an integral part of my education, which is why they sacrificed materialistic comforts to pay tuition to send four children to Catholic school. If religious instruction is so important to the people of Pontotoc County, then they should establish a private religious school instead of transforming their public school into one.
Dee Dooley
Columbus, Ohio

I just watched the Pontotoc ms school prayer program, which I must add, I only knew about because I was reading the Memphis flyer article on the program at the moment it aired, and I must say that this was the best documentary i have seen in decades (i’m 49). I live in Memphis, TN and i can tell you, you just saw life in the Mississippi. god bless lisa and the aclu. there are those of us who believe on the name of Jesus and, because of that, stand squarely in lisa’s corner. i think i’ll join the ACLU. and know if this is journalism, count me in.
Larry Laurenzi
Memphis, Tennessee

I live in NY, the melting pot, and feel the need for the program tohave a sequel – teach tolerance for minorities, other religions, etc. The program was an eye-opener, and I considered that pastor to be bigoted! I sure agree on separation of church and state!
Fran Eastman-Lippmann
New York City

My name is Glenroy Clarke. I am 17 years old resident of Brooklyn, NY. I would likt to thank PBS for its airing of this programs on religious freedom. I found you candid and evenhanded broadcast of this decisive issue very entertaining and informative. I hope that you can broadcast more Point of View programs similar to the on broadcasted on religious freedom in Pontotoc, Mississippi.
Glenroy Clarke
Brooklyn, New York

“Thank you for the great program on religious freedom in the rural South. I thought it was very fair and even-handed. It also made me proud to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU. POV is by far the best show on PBS, and I wish there where more like it.”
Kathleen McConn

Excellent job! An outstanding reminder about whi I loe shows like POV that use television to tell stories and put a face to the abstract ideas of free speech and constitutional rights. Well done.
Matthew Hawn

I more then enjoyed you program, I appreciate you even-handed presentation. Mainly I was more upset then ever at the arrogance of the locals. Their claim that they had gotten away with breaking the law for 50 years, gave them the right to continue. I am proud to be a supporter of PBS. Keep up the good work.
Roy Kem

What an important show! I’ve seldom seen such a good job of illustrating how each side of an argument sees it in polarized and opposition ways while remaining basically good people./i>
Marcia Ribble

The format of this programs was boringly predictable and familiar. It was in vain that I watched, looking for an even-handed, balanced presentation of the real facts. Instead, I saw merely the slick offering of emotion taking precedence over truth. I have been studying effects of television upon viewer for twenty years. All the subtle brain-washing techniques I have learned about were employed by the two “filmmakers” to enhance the anti-Christian point of view, without allowing an equal chance for the pro-Christian point of view.
Windsor Loks

I saw this last night 7/21/99, in Northern Ca. I wonder, How does the ACLU, with an obvious budget of millions, allow their worker/asociate attorney on this case to basically starve? To say that neither he nor Lisa had made a cent on this issue is good press! Yet, the scene where Lisa accepts the ACLU’s highest award in Santa Fe, N.M., speaks of great power and money. How much money DID the ACLU raise using this issue To have one lonely brave family standing against the massed bulwark of Southern religious tradition WILL draw great sympathy from your veiwers, but I believe your broadcast was either naive or dishonest in handling the financial and political agendas of Lisa’s backers.
John Cowper
Northern California

I’m appalled at the state of this country! Again, I watch a liberal show condemning a small Christian community of it’s RIGHT to worship… that’s what I said. This show did not objectively show both sides. We were meant to leave the show feeling sorry for Lisa and her side, but they obviously got a LOT of money and glory for this case. It’s another case of, “Stop that or I’ll sue.”
R. J. Parker
California

Your film pointed out a disturbing fact: that there are still places in this country where whole communities will hasrass and ersecute those who do not share their religious beliefs. I pity such communities. They live in self-imposed exile from the rest of us, smug in the illusion that they are right and everybody else is wrong. Yes, our public schools should be a place where children confront moral and ethical issues–good teachers have made such issues a part of their teaching since schools began. But most intelligent people, regardless of their religious beliefs, agree that schools should teach children to think for themselves and to respect others. Your documentary showed that, unfortunately, there are still people who want children to reject those who are different and to think like a mind-enslaved mob. I applaud the woman who stood up to these modern day Puritans who so blindly and maliciously attacked her. And I greatly admire the lawyer who took her case and worked so hard to help her. Your film also pointed out another important fact, that any American who values personal freedom — religious or otherwise — should support the ACLU and groups like People for the American Way. Who else will defend us from those self-appinted “soldiers of god” when they try to trample on the most basic of our rights? Thanks for an excellent film on an important topic.
Tim Marquette
Michigan

This documentary took us away from the national spotlight and down earth: the lawyer living in his office, the white church fighting external forces, the black church being used politically, the mother getting death threats. Overall a good show, it gave me a new perspective on the controversy of school prayer. Forget the ACLU or Christian Coalition and they’re tired detached rhetoric, we have the real players here living it out. This is what we need on PBS. This is great stuff.
Anonymous

Besides, many other religions besides Christianity believe that the father is the head of home, but the P.O.V show gave absolutely no information whether Herdahl’s husband had any choice in the decisions about his children’s education at the local public schools. In fact it sounded as though Lisa Herdahl’s husband was estually to blame for putting his wife and kids through hell for making them move from Wisconsin to Mississippi! Yet the P.O.V film makers seemed to catch intimate moments which gave some reasons why Lisa’s husband doesn’t want to hang around to much. The camera caught that she seems to be very depressed, even around her own children when they are playing.
Michelle Kunert

After viewing you recent program involving the issue of school prayer for all appearances it seemed like an objective treatment of the matter. But upon careful examination, it was anything but objective. Obviously, by the very nature of the focus of the program on a woman who objected to the way school prayer was allowed in her local public school, it was one-sided. Now if you really want to show both sides of this issue, you should show a program dealing with what a Christian student has to put up with in most public schools! Moreover some teacher and principals trample on their First Amendment rights by forbidding them from carrying bible at school, and from uttering silent prayers before meals. But in our “politically correct” society, I guess only the rights of Jews, and various ethnic minorities matter these days./i>
Paul C. Magnussen
Tacoma, WA

I think the director of this documentary that aired last week about school prayer controversy in Mississippi did an excellent job. I admire their objectivity in covering the matter
Till Gokbudak
Woodstock VA

The Educator's Guide

Schoolprayer: A Community at War

An Educator’s Companion to the Film

I. The First Amendment

• An Introduction
• The Establishment Clause
• The Free Exercise Clause

II. The History of Prayer in Public Schools

III. A Joint Statement of Current Law

• Religion in Public Schools
• Student Prayers
• Graduation Prayer and Baccalaureates
• Teaching About Religion
• Student Assignments and Religion
• Distribution of Religious Literature
• “See You at the Pole”
• Religious Persuasion v. Religious Harassment
• The Equal Access Act
• Religious Holidays
• Excusal From Religiously Objectionable Lessons
• Teaching Values
• Student Garb
• Released Time
• Appendix

IV. The Issue

• Pro School Prayer Position
• Anti School Prayer Position

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The First Amendment

The opening two clauses of the First Amendment deal precisely with the issue of what the government can and cannot do with respect to religion. The Establishment Clause, which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…

guarantees the separation of religion from government, and the Free Exercise Clause:

or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

prohibits the government from interfering with individuals’ rights to worship as they choose. Together these principles protect our freedom to practice any religion or no religion at all.

Religious freedom is one of the most important traditions and constitutional rights we have. This right, however, has been contested and clarified in our courts which to this day continue to define where to draw the line that separates church and state. The body of law on the church/state relationship has been evolving since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. Yet it was not until the 1940s that the Supreme Court began interpreting whether a particular policy or law violated the First Amendment with respect to religion.

The Establishment Clause

When the First Amendment was adopted, most of the original thirteen colonies still had official “established” churches. In much of New England, the Congregational Church was established, and throughout the South, the Anglican. With the power of the government behind them, these denominations often persecuted the members of various minority religions. Baptists, Quakers, Jews and others were denied the right to hold public office and were required to pay taxes to support the established church.

By the time the Constitution was framed, many of its authors had come to believe strongly in “disestablishment.” For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the need for “a wall of separation between church and state,” and in 1785 James Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance that “religion is not helped by establishment, but is hurt by it.” In 1791, when the Bill of Rights was adopted, it reflected this view.

More than a century and a half later, in 1971, the Supreme Court decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman established a three-part test for determining whether a law or government policy has breached the wall between church and state. The Lemon test, still used by the courts today, asks: (1) whether the government’s action has a religious purpose; (2) whether the primary effect of the government’s action is to advance or endorse religion; and (3) whether the government’s action fosters excessive government “entanglement” with religion. If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then the law or policy violates the Establishment Clause.

The Free Exercise Clause

The roots of the Free Exercise Clause reach back to the country’s early colonial history. Roger Williams, who fled religious persecution in England and, in 1644, founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious minorities, said it was God’s command that “a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all Nations and Countries.”

In spite of this sentiment, intolerance has occasionally threatened religious minorities’ freedom of worship. The Supreme Court, therefore, beginning in 1940, handed down a series of decisions that formed a bulwark of protection for religious liberty. In 1940, the Court upheld the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to proselytize on a street corner (Cantwell v. Connecticut). In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witness children could not be forced to salute the flag in public schools (West Virginia v. Barnette). In 1963, the Court held that a Seventh Day Adventist could not be denied unemployment insurance because she refused to work on Saturdays (Sherbert v. Verner). And in 1972, the Court overturned the conviction of an Amish parent who refused to send his children to school beyond eighth grade (Wisconsin v. Yoder).

Not all religious practice is protected, however, even though the freedom to believe is absolute. To determine whether a particular religious ritual is covered by the Free Exercise Clause, the Supreme Court developed a test: A person or group must show (1) that the ritual is motivated by “sincere religious belief,” and (2) that the state has imposed a “substantial burden” on the practice. If these two criteria are met, the government must accommodate the religious practice unless the government can show that it has a “compelling interest” in restricting the practice, and that its restriction is the most lenient way possible (the “least restrictive means”) of serving that interest.

The History of Prayer in Public Schools

The controversy over officially sponsored prayer in public schools did not begin in 1962, when the Supreme Court first ruled that such observances violate the Establishment Clause. It began more than one hundred years earlier, in the 1830s, when waves of Italian and Irish Catholic immigrants came to this country and objected to compulsory readings of the Protestant King James Bible and the recitation of Protestant prayers in most public schools. A bitter conflict erupted, including riots, the expulsion of Catholic children from public schools, the burning of convents, and even some deaths.

In the 1950s, as the religious diversity of our society increased, school prayer became a divisive issue once again. Now Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and atheist parents objected to Christian practices in the public schools.

Out of this conflict arose Engel v. Vitale, a 1962 case in which the Supreme Court ruled against officially sponsored and organized school prayer. “We think,” wrote Justice Hugo L. Black for the court, “that by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer [a nondenominational prayer created by the government], the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause.” The following year, in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, the Court held that Bible readings in public schools also violate the First Amendment.

President John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic President, urged respect for the court’s decision in Engel: “We have in this case a very easy remedy, and that is to pray ourselves. And I would think that it would be a welcome reminder to every American family that we can pray a good deal more at home, we can attend our churches with a good deal more fidelity, and we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of our children.”

– reprinted from ACLU Briefing Paper #3, Church and State

A Joint Statement of Current Law Religion in Public Schools

The Constitution permits much private religious activity in and about the public schools. Unfortunately, this aspect of constitutional law is not as well known as it should be. Some say that the Supreme Court has declared the public schools “religion-free zones” or that the law is so murky that school officials cannot know what is legally permissible. The former claim is simply wrong. And as to the latter, while there are some difficult issues, much has been settled. It is also unfortunately true that public school officials, due to their busy schedules, may not be as fully aware of this body of law as they could be. As a result, in some school districts some of these rights are not being observed.

The organizations whose names appear below span the ideological, religious and political spectrum. They nevertheless share a commitment both to the freedom of religious practice and to the separation of church and state such freedom requires. In that spirit, we offer this statement of consensus on current law as an aid to parents, educators and students.

Many of the organizations listed below are actively involved in litigation about religion in the schools. On some of the issues discussed in this summary, some of the organizations have urged the courts to reach positions different than they did. Though there are signatories on both sides which have and will press for different constitutional treatments of some of the topics discussed below, they all agree that the following is an accurate statement of what the law currently is.

Student Prayers

1. Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive. Because the Establishment Clause does not apply to purely private speech, students enjoy the right to read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray before tests, and discuss religion with other willing student listeners. In the classroom students have the right to pray quietly except when required to be actively engaged in school activities (e.g., students may not decide to pray just as a teacher calls on them). In informal settings, such as the cafeteria or in the halls, students may pray either audibly or silently, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other speech in these locations. However, the right to engage in voluntary prayer does not include, for example, the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate.

Graduation Prayer and Baccalaureates

2. School officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation, nor may they organize a religious baccalaureate ceremony. If the school generally rents out its facilities to private groups, it must rent them out on the same terms, and on a first- come first-served basis, to organizers of privately sponsored religious baccalaureate services, provided that the school does not extend preferential treatment to the baccalaureate ceremony and the school disclaims official endorsement of the program.

3. The courts have reached conflicting conclusions under the federal Constitution on student-initiated prayer at graduation. Until the issue is authoritatively resolved, schools should ask their lawyers what rules apply in their area.

4. Teachers and school administrators, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the state, and, in those capacities, are themselves prohibited from encouraging or soliciting student religious or anti-religious activity. Similarly, when acting in their official capacities, teachers may not engage in religious activities with their students. However, teachers may engage in private religious activity in faculty lounges.

Teaching About Religion

5. Students may be taught about religion, but public schools may not teach religion. As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly said, “it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion, or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.” It would be difficult to teach art, music, literature and most social studies without considering religious influences.

The history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature (either as a separate course or within some other existing course), are all permissible public school subjects. It is both permissible and desirable to teach objectively about the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries. One can teach that the Pilgrims came to this country with a particular religious vision, that Catholics and others have been subject to persecution or that many of those participating in the abolitionist, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements had religious motivations.

6. These same rules apply to the recurring controversy surrounding theories of evolution. Schools may teach about explanations of life on earth, including religious ones (such as “creationism”), in comparative religion or social studies classes. In science class, however, they may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology). Schools may not refuse to teach evolutionary theory in order to avoid giving offense to religion nor may they circumvent these rules by labeling as science an article of religious faith. Public schools must not teach as scientific fact or theory any religious doctrine, including “creationism,” although any genuinely scientific evidence for or against any explanation of life may be taught. Just as they may neither advance nor inhibit any religious doctrine, teachers should not ridicule, for example, a student’s religious explanation for life on earth.

Student Assignments and Religion

7. Students may express their religious beliefs in the form of reports, homework and artwork, and such expressions are constitutionally protected. Teachers may not reject or correct such submissions simply because they include a religious symbol or address religious themes. Likewise, teachers may not require students to modify, include or excise religious views in their assignments, if germane. These assignments should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance, relevance, appearance and grammar.

8. Somewhat more problematic from a legal point of view are other public expressions of religious views in the classroom. Unfortunately for school officials, there are traps on either side of this issue, and it is possible that litigation will result no matter what course is taken. It is easier to describe the settled cases than to state clear rules of law. Schools must carefully steer between the claims of student speakers who assert a right to express themselves on religious subjects and the asserted rights of student listeners to be free of unwelcome religious persuasion in a public school classroom.

a. Religious or anti-religious remarks made in the ordinary course of classroom discussion or student presentations are permissible and constitute a protected right. If in a sex education class a student remarks that abortion should be illegal because God has prohibited it, a teacher should not silence the remark, ridicule it, rule it out of bounds or endorse it, any more than a teacher may silence a student’s religiously-based comment in favor of choice.

b. If a class assignment calls for an oral presentation on a subject of the student’s choosing, and, for example, the student responds by conducting a religious service, the school has the right – as well as the duty – to prevent itself from being used as a church. Other students are not voluntarily in attendance and cannot be forced to become an unwilling congregation.

c. Teachers may rule out-of-order religious remarks that are irrelevant to the subject at hand. In a discussion of Hamlet’s sanity, for example, a student may not interject views on creationism.

Distribution of Religious Literature

9. Students have the right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates, subject to those reasonable time, place, and manner or other constitutionally-acceptable restrictions imposed on the distribution of all non-school literature. Thus, a school may confine distribution of all literature to a particular table at particular times. It may not single out religious literature for burdensome regulation.

10. Outsiders may not be given access to the classroom to distribute religious or anti-religious literature. No court has yet considered whether, if all other community groups are permitted to distribute literature in common areas of public schools, religious groups must be allowed to do so on equal terms subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.

“See You at the Pole”

11. Student participation in before- or after-school events, such as “see you at the pole,” is permissible. School officials, acting in an official capacity, may neither discourage nor encourage participation in such an event.

Religious Persuasion v. Religious Harassment

12. Students have the right to speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics. But school officials should intercede to stop student religious speech if it turns into religious harassment aimed at a student or a small group of students. While it is constitutionally permissible for a student to approach another and issue an invitation to attend church, repeated invitations in the face of a request to stop constitute harassment. Where this line is to be drawn in particular cases will depend on the age of the students and other circumstances.

The Equal Access Act

13. Student religious clubs in secondary schools must be permitted to meet and to have equal access to campus media to announce their meetings, if a school receives federal funds and permits any student non-curricular club to meet during non-instructional time. This is the command of the Equal Access Act. A non-curricular club is any club not related directly to a subject taught or soon-to-be taught in the school. Although schools have the right to ban all non-curriculum clubs, they may not dodge the law’s requirement by the expedient of declaring all clubs curriculum-related. On the other hand, teachers may not actively participate in club activities and “non-school persons” may not control or regularly attend club meetings.

The Act’s constitutionality has been upheld by the Supreme Court, rejecting claims that the Act violates the Establishment Clause. The Act’s requirements are described in more detail in The Equal Access Act and the Public Schools: Questions and Answers on the Equal Access Act*, a pamphlet published by a broad spectrum of religious and civil liberties groups.

Religious Holidays

14. Generally, public schools may teach about religious holidays, and may celebrate the secular aspects of the holiday and objectively teach about their religious aspects. They may not observe the holidays as religious events. Schools should generally excuse students who do not wish to participate in holiday events. Those interested in further details should see Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers*, a pamphlet published by a broad spectrum of religious and civil liberties groups.

Excusal From Religiously Objectionable Lessons

15. Schools enjoy substantial discretion to excuse individual students from lessons which are objectionable to that student or to his or her parent on the basis of religion. Schools can exercise that authority in ways which would defuse many conflicts over curriculum content. If it is proved that particular lessons substantially burden a student’s free exercise of religion and if the school cannot prove a compelling interest in requiring attendance the school would be legally required to excuse the student.

Teaching Values

16. Schools may teach civic virtues, including honesty, good citizenship, sportsmanship, courage, respect for the rights and freedoms of others, respect for persons and their property, civility, the dual virtues of moral conviction and tolerance and hard work. Subject to whatever rights of excusal exist (see #15 above) under the federal Constitution and state law, schools may teach sexual abstinence and contraception; whether and how schools teach these sensitive subjects is a matter of educational policy. However, these may not be taught as religious tenets. The mere fact that most, if not all, religions also teach these values does not make it unlawful to teach them.

Student Garb

17. Religious messages on T-shirts and the like may not be singled out for suppression. Students may wear religious attire, such as yarmulkes and head scarves, and they may not be forced to wear gym clothes that they regard, on religious grounds, as immodest.

Released Time

18. Schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided that schools do not encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who do not attend. Schools may not allow religious instruction by outsiders on premises during the school day.

Appendix

American Civil Liberties Union
American Ethical Union
American Humanist Association
American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Congress
American Muslim Council
Americans for Religious Liberty
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Anti-Defamation League
Baptist Joint Committee
B’nai B’rith
Christian Legal Society
Christian Science Church
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,
Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs
Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot
Friends Committee on National Legislation
General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
Guru Gobind Singh Foundation
Interfaith Alliance
Interfaith Impact for Justice and Peace
National Association of Evangelicals
National Council of Churches
National Council of Jewish Women
National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC)
National Ministries, American Baptist Churches, USA
National Sikh Center
North American Council for Muslim Women
People for the American Way
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Union of American Hebrew Congregations
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
United Church of Christ, Office for Church in Society

Pro School Prayer Position

Since the Engel decision in 1962, religious advocates have been assailing the Supreme Court for “taking God out of the classroom.” In an effort to reverse this trend, conservative religious groups have been fighting for the passage of a school prayer amendment to gain greater leeway for religious activities in schools. Clearly not all school prayer advocates agree as to what types of religious activities are permissible in public schools and why, but the following are some of the most frequently heard arguments.

(1) Our Government is based on Religious Principles

School prayer proponents maintain the United States was established as a Christian nation with religion playing a central role in guiding the nation’s destiny. Supporters of religion in school claim the founding fathers never intended a separation of church and state, evidenced by the fact that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution. Signs of a church/state union can be seen regularly: Congress prays at the opening of every session; federal officials take their oaths upon a Bible; “In God we trust” is stamped on our national currency; and Moses and the Ten Commandments are featured prominently in the Supreme Court building. If religion is accepted in these government institutions, they reason, it should not be stopped at the schoolhouse door.

(2) The Free Exercise Clause Protects School Prayer

Despite decades of Supreme Court rulings, many religious advocates claim the Constitution protects school prayer. According to their interpretation, the First Amendment does not separate God and government, but actually encourages religion. Many supporters believe the Establishment Clause was intended to bar only the establishment of a state religion. They narrowly interpret the Free Exercise Clause as requiring the government to accommodate religious observances in public life. Many advocates believe the restriction on graduation and student-led school prayers violates their First Amendment right to practice religion without government interference.

(3) Banning School Prayer Leads to Moral Decline

Since the banning of organized prayer in public schools, the nation has been in steady moral decline. Divorce rates, teen pregnancy, violent crime, and drug use have all increased. Many school prayer supporters believe there is a direct correlation between the removal of prayer from public schools and the decline of morality. Religious conservatives are convinced that religious influence in the schools is necessary to teach students morals and values.

(4) Majority Should Rule

Public opinion has remained strongly opposed to the court rulings that barred classroom prayer and Bible readings in the 1960s. National polls repeatedly indicate that the majority of Americans favor organized prayer in public schools. School prayer advocates argue that to forbid the majority the right to pray because the minority objects is undemocratic. Supporters are generally committed to majority rule at a local level, and are favorable to laws that would allow local majorities to make decisions about religion in public forums.

Anti School Prayer Position

Over fifty years of Supreme Court jurisprudence has maintained a “wall of separation between Church and State” based on the principles that public schools may not take sides in matters of religion and may not endorse a particular religious perspective or any religion at all. Opponents of a school prayer amendment believe its passage would breach the Church-State wall and diminish religious liberty in this country. Below are some of the most frequently heard arguments against state-sponsored prayer and responses to arguments by school prayer proponents.

(1) State-Sponsored School Prayer is Unconstitutional

Opponents of a school prayer amendment contend that officially sponsored prayer in public schools undermines the religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment. According to their interpretation, the Establishment Clause proscribes the establishment of religion in general – including religious practices. Since prayer is a religious exercise, state-supported prayer amounts to the establishment of a religious practice and is therefore unconstitutional. Additionally, they believe state-sponsored prayer violates the Free Exercise Clause by exposing students to prayer against their will or forcing them to absent themselves to avoid hearing prayers.

(2) Prayer in School is Already Legal

Contrary to the assertions of school prayer advocates, those opposed to organized school prayer maintain that public schools are not hostile to students’ religious expression. The First Amendment guarantees every child the right to pray in school on a voluntary basis. Most religious activity is permitted in public schools, as long as the state plays no role in organizing it, and it does not disrupt the educational mission of the school.

(3) State-Sponsored Prayer Will Lead to Religious Intolerance

Many opponents to a school prayer amendment believe that promoting organized school prayer will endanger religious diversity and breed intolerance. Students of minority religions may feel left out or uncomfortable praying with students of different beliefs. Others may feel pressure to participate or face the disdain of the teachers and peers. Although some school prayer lobbyists have proposed non-denominational prayers, opponents believe it is impossible to compose a prayer that will reflect the religious beliefs of all students. Even non-sectarian prayer infringes upon students who follow no religion.

(4) Moral Decline and School Prayer are Unrelated

Contrary to the assumptions of school prayer supporters, opponents of organized school prayer find no evidence that prayer will improve morality or challenge students to lead ethical lives. Separationists generally attribute the country’s social problems to poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunity – issues which they believe should be addressed by serious analysis and sufficient resources, not by classroom prayers. In response to the presumption that the removal of organized prayers from public schools in the 1960s spurred the country’s moral decline, opponents are quick to point out that school prayer coexisted with the Jim Crow laws of the South, the official discrimination against women in education and employment, and the discrimination against minorities in political, cultural, and social institutions.