The First Amendment of the United States Constitution
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, also known as the FFRF, is an organization that stands up for the rights of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, whenever they are encroached by religion. One of their pending lawsuits involves a South Carolina high school that violated a rule against sanctioning prayers. Let me take a look at this case within the view of the larger issue of religion in public schools.
I went to public school my whole life (except in pre-K) and I cannot ever once remember being forced to observe a religious prayer or activity during those 12 years. Inner city New York City public schools are a pretty secular environment. I did have a few teachers mention god when talking about their personal life, not in any proselytizing way, and when a junior high school science teacher died, I remember we did observe a moment of silence, which there is nothing inherently religious about. But all in all, it was very secular. It appears that public schools in the south and other rural areas of the U.S. apparently have a different story. I am aware of many incidences of teachers and school administrators leading prayers, and this is the issue taken up by the FFRF.
The problem I have, is that public school teachers and personnel are government employees, and they are figures of authority over the students. This I feel should make them ineligible to lead prayers while on school campuses, and while on the job.
Let's look at this issue in context with the first amendment. What people who oppose this lawsuit are saying, is that when a teacher leads students in prayer, no one is forced. Any student who wishes not to participate in the prayer does not have to. This they claim, is the first amendment's freedom from religion in action. Now while students may opt out of the school-sanctioned prayer, the problem is when it is a government employee, in a position of authority, leading a prayer that is going to outcast the students who don't want to participate, and in some cases, pressure them to observe the prayer or ceremony. This "officializes" the prayer as if it had government's stamp of approval.
It is not the role of government employees to be leading prayers while they are on the job. Just as I wouldn't want the clerks behind the counter at the DMV to suddenly drop to their knees and begin worshiping allah, or to encourage me to observe religious fasting, I wouldn't want similar acts taking place by public school teachers. When I need to use a government service, which is often when I have no choice, I do not want to be asked or encouraged to experience any religious activity. The bottom line is: government employees on the job should not be encouraging religious activity.
Now I have no problem with people observing their religious traditions in their private lives. The first amendment protects this right and religious freedom is one of our greatest achievements in the U.S. If students want to pray in a public high school, that is their right to do so too. Just because they are in a public building does not mean they should have to check their religion at the door. The issue is when public administration leads or sanctions prayers because then it is government respecting the establishment of a religion. I'm sure that most Christian parents of children in public schools would not be comfortable if their children's teacher was a very vocal, devout Muslim, who quite often spoke positively about Islam and lead daily prayers in the classroom in the Islamic tradition. That would be proselytizing in the classroom by a government employee onto young impressionable minds who by law are required to be there.
This very scenario is exactly why some religious people want creationism taught in the classroom and to allow school sanctioned prayers. They want god back in the classroom so that future generations of kids will be brainwashed into becoming religious. That is a parent's role, not government's role. In most parts of the U.S. the non-religious are the minority. The rights of those who wish not to observe must be protected, and the government in our public school system is the last place we need this right being violated.
Welcome to Atheism and the City. This blog is about exploring atheism through contemporary urban living. I live in New York City, the secular metropolis, and I have an avid interest in all things religion, science, philosophy, politics, and economics. I am an atheist, a humanist, a philosopher and a thinker, and the purpose of Atheism and the City is to write about my thoughts and experiences on the subjects and topics that I have a passion for. Feel free to respond to any post whether or not you agree.