A History of God in Public Schools: Religious Right Edition

The Education Law & Policy Review journal put out by the University of Georgia just released its fourth issue, focusing on church/state law.

You can read the whole thing here, but I wanted to call special attention to an essay by Rob Boston, the Director of Communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. His article offers an overview of his three decades in the trenches, specifically focusing on the issue of God in the public schools.

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I especially enjoyed this summary of how the Christian Right thinks about that history:

I used to do a lot of talk radio. From that, I learned that lots of people cling to a story about religion in public schools that, while it confirms their pro-faith bias, has little connection to reality. In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: We had prayer and Bible reading in our schools for hundreds of years. No one complained. Then a loud-mouthed atheist named Madalyn Murray O’Hair came along in the early 1960s. Possibly backed by Soviet Russia, she filed a lawsuit to end prayer in schools. The super-liberal Supreme Court agreed, and since then our public schools have been God-free zones. A kid can’t even say, “God bless you” if his friend sneezes. This explains why we have so many school shootings.

Based on all the articles I’ve posted over the years, that sounds pretty damn accurate.

Boston goes on to explain why none of that is true, later offering his more honest assessment of why there’s no longer mandatory Christian prayer in public schools. It wasn’t the result of one atheist or even one Supreme Court decision.

Many people complained about mandatory prayer and Bible reading in schools, with [complaints] stretching back to the 19th century. These practices were already illegal in some states before the Supreme Court ruled. O’Hair brought one case among many and some public schools voluntarily phased out the religious practice to avoid complaints.

What has been frustrating, from the point of an activist in the trenches, has been watching people spend so much time, energy and money to secure a “right” that already exists. Nothing prevents young people from praying on their own in public schools right now. Their prayers must be voluntarily chosen and non-disruptive, but they are allowed. Many states even have laws mandating moments of silence at the beginning of the school day. During this period, students may pray or not as dictated by conscience.

The Christian Right leaders know all this. But it’s much harder to fundraise when you’re honest about how your rights aren’t being (and never have been) taken away. That’s why atheists and their lawyers continue to be bogeymen for those religious conservatives.

Boston’s essay and others in this journal are just fantastic. If you have a curiosity about the legal battle over church/state separation in public schools, give it a read.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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