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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
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
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
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
-- Indiana Segment --
Allan Berger: Rennselear is a fairly conservative community. Its a
rural community, its a fairly homogenous community. Its a church-
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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