This story was brought to my attention by a friend and neighbor who is the mother of a student who will soon be attending Lewisville High School, part of the Lewisville Independent School District (LISD) that my daughter also goes to, and she was worried that her student might feel left out of the high school marching band for being nonreligious.
This is because on a Facebook group for the city of Lewisville, a woman posted about how supposedly there is a “new LISD policy” that forbids the Lewisville High School marching band from reciting the Lord’s Prayer before football games, which has supposedly been a tradition going on “for at least 30 years.”
Here are just a couple of the comments that best summed up what everyone in favor of the invocation was saying.
This is what came to mind every time someone said this prayer is a tradition:
Tradition is not a good enough reason to violate the Constitution. A lot of things are traditions that aren’t constitutional and aren’t really that good of an idea in our modern context. And I’m sure there are students in the band that it doesn’t mean a lot to and/or that are feeling outright ostracized or coerced because of it.
The “world is the way it is these days” because a high school marching band isn’t doing a sectarian invocation before their public school’s football games? You certainly have a very simplistic way of looking at the world.
The problem is that Congress is different from a high school marching band, and the Supreme Court has recognized this. It’s the fact that students can be more easily coerced than adults and made to think or do something they may not agree with. A member of Congress would not be so easily swayed, at least I would hope, but high school students are more susceptible to peer pressure. This is why the marching band doing this invocation and asking all of the members to take part is such a problem. But also, Congress is not solely opened with Christian prayers, let alone the Lord’s Prayer, every single time they are in session. However, I do remember members of Congress completely losing it when a Hindu delivered an invocation.
Huh? I don’t even… *sigh*
There’s also nowhere in the Constitution where it says the words “right to privacy” or anything anywhere along those lines, but the right to privacy is viewed as one of the most important parts of our nation’s civil rights and liberties. The Supreme Court, by looking at various parts of the Constitution, the intent of the Founding Fathers, and various rulings by the Supreme Court itself, has found there to be a fundamental right to privacy. The same can be said for the separation of church and state.
The First Amendment, Article 1 Section 6 (no religious tests for public office), various writings by the Founding Fathers at the time (e.g. Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists), and a host of rulings by the Supreme Court come together to form what we merely refer to as the “separation of church and state.” Just because the phrase itself doesn’t appear in the Constitution doesn’t mean anything.
Why this person posted this photo, I really don’t know, since “In God We Trust” wasn’t added to paper currency until the 1950s at the height of the Red Scare. We had nearly 200 years of no reference to a deity on paper currency. Talk about ending a longstanding tradition.
This is probably the most common argument made in favor of prayers being forced on students at public schools. “Sit down and shut up” is often the sentiment.
No one said the students can’t pray, let alone in school. That is their right to do so.
The school simply can’t lead the students in prayer, and even it is a student leading the invocation it creates peer pressure for the students that can make them feel ostracized and even coerce them into participating against their will, and the Supreme Court has ruled this to be true too (Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe ISD v. Doe).
But who is to say if the students are feeling ostracized or coerced by the prayer? Comment after comment in the thread kept saying that no one was feeling ostracized because of it for religious reasons, so what’s the big deal?
Well, let’s head to Texas’ neighbor to the North to get some perspective.
Nicole Smalkowski (pictured to the right) was a basketball player for the Hardesty High School basketball team in Oklahoma. Before each game, the team would say the Lord’s Prayer, the same prayer used by the Lewisville High School marching band. As an atheist, Nicole refused to take part and was kicked off the team for “hurting morale.”According to the American Humanist Association’s website, “Smalkowski had to endure harassment and mistreatment by students and teachers, resulting in her parents opting to provide homeschooling. ‘You know they would call me devil worshipper. I’d walk down the halls, people would laugh at me. They would look at me really weird and stare me down,’ she said. A lawsuit was eventually settled.” It’s because of stories like Nicole’s that make it hard for me to believe it when people repeatedly claimed that no one has ever felt ostracized by the invocation.
Before I conclude, I’d like to show this comment from an actual member of the Lewisville Independent School District Board of Trustees (a.k.a. the school board).
I had to look it up to see if this was true, so I found in the LISD Board Policy Manual all sections of the district’s policies on prayer that anyone can take a look at for themselves (spoiler: she’s wrong).
There are sections that clearly say the schools cannot discriminate against religious views, speech, or activities, but this is mostly in reference to the rights of students to pray on an individual basis and of student clubs being able to organize for religious purposes. It does not extend to the school’s official marching band. The following excerpt is what I specifically want to bring to people’s attention though.
“A public school student has an absolute right to individually, voluntarily, and silently pray or meditate in school in a manner that does not disrupt…” and, “A student shall not be required, encouraged, or coerced to engage in or refrain from such prayer or meditation during any school activity.”
From what I’ve heard about how the marching band recites the Lord’s Prayer, it clearly is a violation of the school district’s own policies. So while it might be correct that this is a “new LISD policy,” since these were issued in 2013 (which might really be that it is just the newest version of the manual and that this section has been in there for some time now and finally got noticed by someone), tradition is not a good enough reason to violate the Constitution or make students feel ostracized for their religious beliefs or lack thereof.
So because of all this, I decided to write an email to the Lewisville Independent School District’s Board of Trustees to let them know exactly how I feel, not only as a person who supports secular schools, but as a parent of an LISD student.
To the LISD Board of Trustees,
My name is Daniel Moran, and I am a concerned father of a student in the Lewisville Independent School District. I write to you today because of concerns as a parent about a violation of the district’s policy that must be addressed as soon as possible by the Board.
Parents and former students of Lewisville ISD schools have informed me that members of the Lewisville High School marching band perform a recitation of a sectarian invocation, sometimes through song, before football games and that members ask for the entire band to take part in this practice. I have also been told that this has been going on for a very significant number of years now.
In the LISD Board Policy Manual, Title STUDENT RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES, Subtitle STUDENT EXPRESSION, Section PRAYER AT SCHOOL ACTIVITIES, it states (emphasis mine), “A public school student has an absolute right to individually, voluntarily, and silently pray or meditate in school in a manner that does not disrupt…” and that, “A student shall not be required, encouraged, or coerced to engage in or refrain from such prayer or meditation during any school activity.”
This is a violation of district policy, because the students are not “individually, voluntarily, and silently” taking part in prayer or meditation. Because students are asking for fellow bandmates to take part, the practice of reciting a sectarian prayer during marching band activities is placing public and peer pressure on students. This sort of pressure, even if “subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion.” See Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992). This would violate the religious liberty of these students and their right under the law and Board policy from being “coerced to engage in…prayer or meditation during any school activity.”
Some students, especially those of minority beliefs, may also see this practice as an official endorsement of the Christian religion by the school, even if it is led by fellow students, and may view themselves as outsiders and not full members of their community and may view their fellow students who are adherents as insiders and favored members of the community. See Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000).
Of course, it is not my wish to infringe upon the religious freedom or free speech rights of anyone, let alone students, but rather to work with the Board to ensure the religious liberty of all students is not being violated if they feel pressured to join in with sectarian practices in order to feel included or risk being ostracized by their friends and peers, something no student should have to go through, especially if it violates their deeply held beliefs.
As a parent, and as a former student of LISD schools myself, I understand why students may feel ostracized or coerced for not taking in part such activities, and I ask that this issue be addressed swiftly by the LISD Board of Trustees and that your best efforts work towards the equal protection and treatment of all students, because what you do will affect the school life of my daughter and many other students and their parents who do not have the ability to speak up for their religious liberty.
If I may be of any further assistance to the Board or if there are any questions, feel free to contact me anytime at this email. I will do my best to help in any way I can.
Thank you for your time,
In conclusion, I would like to bring it back to the woman who brought this issue to my attention. I’d first like to thank her for informing me of this. I know it is not easy to come out as an atheist, let alone in Texas and let alone if it might affect your children and how they are treated in school. You are a brave mother.
If her student feels uncomfortable with the Lord’s Prayer during band activities, not during the meeting of a student religious club (which would indeed be protected under LISD policies), and then might feel the need to recite it as well to feel included or to avoid being ostracized, then it is most certainly coercive and should not be allowed in our public schools to ensure the equal treatment and protection of all students.
I just hope that once I’m elected to the Texas legislature this Fall that I can work for the many underrepresented and forgotten people of this state that feel their voices are being drowned out because they don’t believe in a god or gods.