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This is the transcript of "America's Constitutional Heritage: Religion and Our Public Schools." A Video Presentation by the American Civil Liberties Union
Reverend W.W. Finlator:
Hello. I'm Reverend W.W. Finlator. For 26 years I was the pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church here in Raleigh, North Carolina. Like many of you, I am concerned about the crisis of values in our society. As a minister, I know that religion is extremely important to many Americans. But it is also one of the most private and individual aspects of our everyday lives.
I share the widespread concern about the seeming lack of faith and values in America and believe that the best way to strengthen these values is to reach out to the next generation. My wife and I brought our three children up in the Baptist Church and faith. That was our privilege and right as parents. Some people, however, want to take that right and responsibility away from parents. They want to bring religion to our children in another way. Not through parents at home, or in church, but through the public schools.
Many of you, I am sure, have asked yourselves whether prayer belongs in public schools. Many of you may be facing this issue right now in your own communities. This issue can be complicated, with persuasive and passionate arguments coming from all sides. In the next 20 minutes, you will meet several courageous families who faced this issue head on as well as experts who will give you more information about this crucial debate so you can make the best decision for yourself, your children and your schools.
The debate over the role of religion in the nation's public schools is important because it raises many basic questions about our society and its constitutional heritage, and whether the government should play any role in telling people where, when and how to pray.
The founders of our nation strongly believed that government, whether on the national or local level, should not become involved -- in any way -- in religious activities. They said government must not regulate religion, conduct religious services or interfere in any way with church activities. Our nation's founders believed that people should be free to pursue their own religious beliefs without government interference.
I would like now to introduce you to Professor Douglas Laycock, a distinguished constitutional scholar at the University of Texas Law School. We asked Professor Laycock to explain the historical reasons why the founders of our great nation wanted to keep government out of all religious matters.
Professor Douglas Laycock:
From the time of the Emperor Constantine which is the 4th century, to nearly the time of the American Constitution, the assumption in European society was everybody in the country had to have the same religion and the religion they had to have was the King's religion. The King got to choose and everybody got to follow him.
The Protestant Reformation of course, put that directly in issue and for nearly 200 years in Europe you had civil war and international war, basically between Protestants and Catholics. The issue, Protestant v. Catholic and the risk of a Catholic King, was a constant issue in English politics which broke out into warfare repeatedly and many of the American colonies were founded by people who fled that conflict in Europe.
Since the birth of this nation, we have debated the issue of separation of church and state in one form or another. And I'm sure we'll be debating it for a long time to come. In the end however, the debate seems to end up in the same place. Most Americans -- myself included -- don't want the government interfering in any of our most private affairs, especially not our religion.
I'm a Baptist. My wife and I brought up our children as Baptists. We didn't want them brought up in any other faith. And we didn't want anyone else to take that responsibility away from us, especially not the government. I'm sure that many of you feel the same way. But when a teacher leads a prayer in the public school, he or she usurps your role as a parent. This may not at first seem objectionable to you if you are a Baptist and it's a Baptist prayer or tradition that's being practiced in the school. But what if it were a Mormon prayer? Or a Jewish prayer? Or a Muslim prayer? A prayer that endorsed beliefs that offended you. Would you really want that in your school? Would you want your child forced to participate in that? I wouldn't. But once you allow one form of prayer in the school, you are inviting other forms of prayer in as well -- even secular humanist or atheist prayers.
The subject of school sponsored prayer inevitably comes up every spring during graduation. It came up for Angie Willmore in May, 1993. Angie is from a religious, Mormon family. Her community of Rexburg, Idaho, is predominantly Mormon. Because of this, Angie's graduating class thought that praying during graduation would not hurt anyone. But Angie felt differently. She knew the Supreme Court had ruled only the year before that prayers at graduation violated the Constitution, because, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said, and I quote, "The Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation." Angie decided to protest the prayer by walking out of her high school graduation.
I'd almost decided to let it go just because there were a lot of people there and then I saw Shane get up and start walking towards the podium and I knew he was the one giving the prayer and I just I knew I couldn't live with myself if I sat there and let it happen and didn't at least let people know that someone did care that someone was opposed. And the only thing I really wanted to do was to make people think for just a minute.
Angie felt that the official prayer at her high school graduation violated her right to religious liberty, because it was the government telling her when and how to pray. The right to be free from such government interference is guaranteed to Angie and to all Americans by the First Amendment to our Constitution, the bedrock of law and justice in our country.
In fact this notion of religious liberty was so important to the founders of our nation that they combined it with two of our other most cherished rights - the guarantees of free speech and free press. In carefully chosen language, our nation's founders said that the government could best guarantee religious liberty in America by leaving religion entirely alone.
The Constitution clearly lays out the founder's intentions to keep government separate from religion in the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses which say "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Professor Laycock explains why our founders included this right in our Constitution.
Well in the 1780's you had established churches in most of the states. The congregationalists who were sort of descended from the Puritans, were the established church in most of New England. The Anglicans were the established church all through the southern counties from Maryland to Georgia. But maybe less than half the population were Anglicans in the South and there were lots of minority denominations in New England, mostly Presbyterians and Baptists who were both Evangelical denominations in those days and alot of smaller groups, Quakers and Methodists and others.
And the real support for religious liberty came from these evangelical denominations. They wanted free exercise of religion. They also wanted an establishment clause. They wanted the government separated from the Anglicans, separated from the Congregationalists. Their view was if government supported religion, it would support one particular religion and it would turn out to be bad for all the minority denominations.
I'd like to introduce you now to Allen and Becky Berger and their children, Joshua and Moriah. The Bergers had to make some hard decisions when they learned that Bibles were being distributed at their children's elementary school. Because of their religious beliefs -- Becky is an elder in her Presbyterian church, Allen is Jewish -- the Bergers felt very strongly about handling their children's religious instruction themselves. Yet their simple request to the school board to stop the distribution of bibles landed them in court, in the middle of a lawsuit against the school board of Rennsalaer, Indiana.
-- Indiana Segment --
Allan Berger: Rennselear is a fairly conservative community. Its a rural community, its a fairly homogenous community. Its a church- going community.
Becky Berger: Would you please rise and join me in the call to worship. We confess Oh God there is that desire within us to fit in rather than be set apart. You call us to march to a different drummer and in responding we find ourselves out of step with many of those around us. Forgive the sinfulness of our choices of expedience, our rationalizations and excuses, our turning from the abundant life you offer and from the peace and joy that only relationship with you can give.
Allan: It didn't really start as any kind of crusade it started simply as a letter of complaint to the school corporation when I found out from an alumna of mine, who had been a student of mine at St. Joseph's College that bibles were being distributed by the Gideons each year to the 5th grade students in the classrooms in the schools.
Becky: In some ways it seemed like a very small issue to a lot of people but I think that the ramifications are more far-reaching. Allan: Here was a situation where the school superintendent was deciding which religions were appropriate for the students to be exposed to, which religions were inappropriate. We are a multi-faith family. I am Jewish, Becky is Protestant. We feel the religious formation of our children is a personal family matter.
Becky: There's no question in my mind that other kinds of religious materials would not have been acceptable for distribution in the schools. Having been a teacher in the school system I knew that there was no open forum such as the school board was trying to portray that we had.
Allan: I think one of the things that was most interesting was that Becky received thanks from parents who are religious minorities themselves. Parents of 7th Day Adventists children, parents of Jehovah's Witness children -- not that there are many families of those religious persuasions in Rennselear.
Allan: I never expected this issue to end up in court. I was naive. I thought a simple letter of complaint to the school corporation would settle the issue. Once the issue hit the press there was tremendous polarization in town. There was little dialogue after that. And that's tragic because these issues ought to be settled without lawsuits. There's no reason this ever had to become a lawsuit.
Allan: I think for us the broader ramifications for the case mainly have to do with a renewed faith, a renewed faith number 1 that the system works. A renewed faith secondly in our neighbors and in our friends. We did not lose friends our neighbors did not turn on us. We did not have crosses burned on our lawn. We received nasty hate mail over the 3 1/2 years but very little of it came locally. And to me, that says something about the value and the goodness that exists in many small towns in America like Rennselear.
Ultimately, the courts upheld the Berger's position and Becky and Allan were satisfied that they and all the parents in their community could decide for themselves what religious instruction was appropriate for their own children. But sometimes, the effects of violations of the Establishment Clause are long lasting - causing unnecessary pain and suffering for those people whose religious rights have been violated. This has been true since the founding of our nation. Professor Laycock explains.
In the 19th century we had an enormous political fight all across the country over Protestant and Catholic forms of prayer. We had Catholic children who were whipped and beaten for refusing to read the King James version of the Bible.
The controversy over the Protestant Bible became so heated that there were 40 people killed in mob violence in Philadelphia. This was a very major issue off and on for 30 years in the mid 19th century and it was really only resolved when the Catholics pulled the kids out of schools and started their own schools.
Just like Allan and Becky Berger, several families in Little Axe, Oklahoma, the McCords and the Bells, felt that religious practices in their public school should stop. They, like the Bergers, are religious families. And they, like the Bergers, tried to talk to the teachers, the school, and finally the school board. But the matter could not be resolved. And so, just like in Rennsalaer, the McCords and the Bells went to court. They too won their lawsuit. But this victory came at a high personal cost. The McCords were driven out of their home, which was then vandalized. And the Bells - the Bells were literally burned out of their community. Here is their story.
Joann Bell: I first learned about it because my son who was a freshman was denied entry into the school building to work on his class project -- the school newspaper. He was told he could not enter the school at that time unless he had the purpose of attending the prayer meetings.
Lucille McCord: To me school is to be school and religion is religion. And I didn't want school putting ideas into my children's heads that I didn't want there.
Joann: The reaction that we got when we complained was this is what everyone wants -- we've been having things like this for years. It doesn't matter what a few people think. This is the way we're going to do it. In fact the school board themselves gave me the idea to call the ACLU because I had never had any contact with the ACLU. The school board president actually said so sue us -- bring in the ACLU.
Lucille: My first reaction when I was told that probably the only people that could help us was the ACLU was I almost threw my hands up and screamed because everything I had heard about the ACLU was just totally against my whole religious upbringing. I had -- talk about communists and everything else -- I had been led down the path with that the ACLU really were the bad people of the world.
Joann: I was raised in the Nazarene church and in fact I had a 16- year perfect attendance Sunday School Pin. And my children are very active in the church also. My true feeling about it was -- if that sort of religion could be practiced in Little Axe school then maybe some other religions that I was leery of could also be brought in.
Lucille: No one stopped to listen to anything that we were saying. It didn't make any difference. A lot of the people that in the community that went to the same church that I did. And knew that I went to church.
Joann: I got my own obituary in the mail. My kids were threatened constantly -- their lives. I was told my kids were not going to survive. They said my house would be burned. The threats to burn my home was the one that I probably should have taken the most seriously. I just couldn't see in an civilized area -- I considered that these people would not ever do that. But my home was firebombed. Unless you've ever had a fire -- the devastation is something you cannot even begin to describe. To lose everything you've ever had. And with four children you really accumulate a lot of things -- the trophies. Everything that you saved, your baby pictures, the little things -- your marriage license. You lose everything. There's nothing hardly that can be saved. One of the things, the very few things that survived the fire was the christening dress of my daughter. We have three sons and we have a daughter that we're very proud of and this was her christening dress and that little hat was melted. It's one, it's one of the things that you'd like to pass on and let them use it for their children. This is just an example of things that were ruined and what our family lost in the fire. Because we essentially lost everything we had.
Lucille: Every day something happens that brings back the memories something that happens, something the kids will say, something they do, something that I see. It was a devastating experience. For anyone. And I can understand why people don't want to get involved with it.
What happened to Mrs. McCord, Mrs. Bell and their families is truly tragic. But it is a sobering reminder that bitter conflicts over religion still arise today. Not only in Bosnia or Ireland, but also in our own country. The reason we are so shocked to see it happen here is because, unlike most countries, our Constitution guarantees our right to practice our religion free from interference or harassment.
That's why we don't expect to see situations like the one in Little Axe occur in our own backyards. But they do happen. And that is why we must work hard to prevent religious divisiveness in this country. Religion is a highly emotional issue. And the events in Little Axe are a vivid example of what happens when emotions get out of hand.
That's why I believe that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is so important. The Establishment Clause guarantees that the government will not take sides -- and that each of us will be free to practice and teach our religion according to our individual consciences. As a minister, I've spent most of my life preaching peace and reconciliation with God and humanity and promoting the church. However, I did not force my congregation to come to our services and I did not need or want the government's help. People came of their own free will.
Many people worry that the separation of church and state means that their children cannot practice their religion at school, during the school day. But this is not the case. Professor Laycock explains why.
Some school officials around the country have gotten the mistaken impression not just that the school can't sponsor prayer, but that the school can't let anybody else talk about religion on the school grounds and that's a mistake.
If you really had a rule that said no student can say grace before his meal in the cafeteria or say a silent prayer before the math test, of course that would be unconstitutional. But, nobody, absolutely nobody has ever proposed a rule like that. An individual student can pray whenever he's got a free second. What the court has forbidden is for the school to conduct the prayer service.
The Court has been very concerned that parents of minority faiths ought to be able to send their children to the public schools without having to worry that the school would proselytize those children away from the faith of the parents. And so the Court has been quite unwilling to allow even very short religious services or very short prayers in the public schools.
Earlier I mentioned that much of this debate is driven by people's well-founded concerns about a decline in moral values in our country and in the increase in violence on our streets and in our homes. I'm concerned too. Some people argue that removing school-sanctioned prayer from the public schools led to these problems.
William Bennett, former Secretary of Education, claims that the 1962 decision, Engel v. Vitale, banning official prayer from the public schools, is directly responsible for our national decline. According to Mr. Bennett and others, the 1962 decision marked a rapid plunge in SAT scores, a skyrocketing teenage pregnancy rate and other social problems. In fact, however, these are misleading claims.
To discuss this aspect of the debate, let's talk with Jonathan Kozol, a public school teacher for more than 20 years. Mr. Kozol is also an award-winning author who now lectures and writes about the serious problems facing our schools and our nation. We asked him if the Supreme Court's 1963 decision was responsible for these tragic statistics.
If you look at the numbers, SAT averages are lower today then they were in the 1950s. Why is that? Because in the 1950s virtually no poor children survived high school long enough to take the SATs. Now there's a massive increase in the numbers of kids who stay in high school long enough to even have a chance to take these tests. Of course if more and more kids including more marginally successful kids are taking the tests, of course the averages are going to be lower.
From his experiences in the nation's public schools and from his hundreds of conversations with students and teachers across the country, Mr. Kozol believes that the removal of prayer from our public schools is not in any way responsible for our nation's decline in morality. He points, instead to the appalling conditions of poverty that many school-age children experience in their homes and in their schools. According to the United States Department of Commerce, more children live in poverty today than at any time since the early 1960's. Mr. Kozol believes that these statistics are much more meaningful in explaining the increase in violence and lack of morality in our society today.
Nine-tenths of the social problems that we see in the United States ultimately are related to the enormous and increasing gulf in wealth and opportunity and education between the richest and poorest people in our society. Partly because of mass communication today, the very poor are more aware of the privileges of the very rich and they could possibly have been thirty years ago.
So the poorest people in our nation, are not only suffering more today than any time in my adult life because of the intensifying poverty in the ghettos of this country, but they are also more aware of what the privileged receive, and the clash between the infinite opportunities that they see on television and the bitter realities of their own lives inevitably creates every kind of bitterness, fury, self-destructive instinct, internal rage, frustration, and often a terrible self-despisal, self-hate.
America's public schools are without question, one of the most important institutions in the country in building character and teaching values to our children. And I'm sure we all agree that every child deserves the best education this nation can provide. And while it is obvious that there are many problems in our public schools, it is clear to me, as a minister and a parent that they are not linked to the Supreme Court's decision in 1962 prohibiting school-sponsored prayer. For it is crucial that we remember that the schools -- or any government body -- cannot substitute for our churches, synagogues, mosques, homes, or any other place of worship.
This is the church where I was the senior minister for 26 years. Pullen Memorial Baptist Church has a long history of dedication to freedom and openness and respect for dissent.
We have sought and found answers to many hard questions and dilemmas here. I know the dilemma that many of you face on the issue of separation of church and state is one which you will continue to think about. This issue will be around for a long time to come. There are no easy answers.
I hope this presentation has provided you with some of the information you need to make your own decision about this important issue. Thank you for your time today. Goodbye - and may the blessings of Heaven be with all of us.
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