Today I went to a state-sponsored church service – or that’s what it felt like. It was a clergy breakfast hosted by the St. Louis Public School District: a chance to celebrate and support the connections being built between St. Louis public schools and local religious congregations. I was invited because I’m clergy at a local congregation, and we have parents who live in the school district (even though, currently, we have no programs in the schools). I went to satisfy my curiosity and to learn what religious organizations can do and are doing to help students learn – and to see if my unease at the concept of a publicly-hosted clergy breakfast was well-founded.
I’m not implacably opposed to congregations and schools working together. Congregations are repositories of social capital, and often have deep roots in the communities schools are trying to serve. They have willing volunteers who are only too happy to mentor kids, help them with their homework, run an after-school program. This is all good. One of the presentations at the breakfast, about a chess program run and funded by a local church, struck me as a great idea. Kids who normally wouldn’t be exposed to chess were being taught the ancient game by master teachers from a nearby chess school, while the church provided the boards and pieces, some facilitation of the sessions, and volunteers to help out. Cool. If churches stuck to this sort of engagement with schools, I’d be for it.
The second presentation, however, got me worried. An engaging young man from a religious nonprofit spoke about how his group hands out donuts and other snacks – healthy snacks too! – to kids as they arrive at school, cheerfully commending them for making it on time. “Yeah, it’s Friday! You made it to school! Good job! See you at Club on Monday!” What’s Club? According to the nonprofit’s website, it’s “a party with a purpose,” and the purpose is to “share a simple message about God’s love for them.”
I like donuts. I like people greeting kids on the way to school. Hey, I like parties with a purpose (although I’d personally prefer God not be present at my parties – he’s a picky eater). What makes me nervous is how close this seems to proselytization, and how easy it would be for “greeting kids who already attend our programs” to become “encouraging kids who don’t to attend our programs.” Indeed, the entire goal of this group is “Introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith.” That’s a proselytizing organization – and it has programs in St. Louis Public Schools, and is being given time to promote them at this public function.But it was the wrapping of the event which most set my teeth on edge. After a short welcome from a School District staff person, we’re treated to a sung rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. I’m a singer, and I like good singing, and this singer was good – but it’s not appropriate to start a meeting hosted by a public school district this way. Then we had a Christian prayer offered by a Christian minister – with no recognition that some of the people present, or some of the teachers in the St. Louis public schools, or some of the students in St. Louis public schools might not actually, you know, be Christian. Just a straight up Christian prayer. And at the end, we were all invited to stand, and were led in…another Christian prayer. The whole event – an event funded by the City of St. Louis, held in St. Louis Public Schools headquarters, hosted by the Superintendent – began and ended with the collective expression of Christian faith.
This is not OK. Public institutions have a responsibility to maintain religious neutrality. They should never give the impression of promoting one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion. They should certainly never host sectarian religious practices as part of their events. The very least which should happen at any such event is an open acknowledgment of religious diversity at the start of the meeting, and representatives from multiple religious traditions presenting, to ensure that the event doesn’t seem to favor one religion over another. But honestly I don’t think prayer has any place in functions hosted by public institutions, even those honoring the hard work of religious communities. I don’t want to be an angry atheist, but this stuff does make me angry. I don’t understand why public bodies seem to find secularism such a difficult concept to grasp. And in this case, the casual religiosity of this public event makes me wonder about the work these churches are doing in our public schools: if we’re turning meetings at public school HQ into Christian services, what the hell is happening in our classrooms?
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