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Without a Prayer

Dateline: July 08, 1998

The issue of organized and officially sanctioned prayer in public schools has long been a contentious one. Religious conservatives in American society vilify the nature of religion-neutral secular education, calling for a return of organized prayer and claiming that it will solve America's problems with violence and immorality. Evidently, America had no problems when organized prayer was the norm before the 1960's. None of that is really true, but evangelicals are not easily dissuaded from spreading these and similar myths. A very recent case - not in Alabama or Mississippi, but in New York City of all places - illustrates this issue perfectly.


The facts of this case are relatively simple and are not actually in dispute by anyone - a rather refreshing change, I think. On June 8, a student in 43-year-old Mildred Rosario's 6th grade homeroom asked her about a recently drowned schoolmate and whether or not he went to heaven. She promptly told the entire class that he was indeed in heaven and that Jesus was a savior who came to save all the human race so that they might also go to heaven. She informed the students that any who did not want to participate in this religious discussion could leave, read, or work on the computers. When none left, the born-again Pentecostal teacher lead the entire class in prayer, walking around and placing her hand on the head of each student.

But one student was not entirely happy with situation - an 11-year-old Jehovah's Witness who called home to her guardian to pick her up at school. After hearing of the incident, the guardian complained to the principal of the Bronx school who in turn notified the school board. At an official hearing, Rosario was informed that what she did was wrong, against school policy, and a violation of the rights of the students. Yet she was unrepentant. She informed the principal that the schools are in their present state due to taking Jesus, prayers, and God out of classes. The board informed her that she could retain the untenured teaching position she had held since September if she promised not to teach her theology to the students again, even indirectly - but she refused, saying that she would pray with them again under the same circumstances.

So, she was promptly fired. As I said - these facts are not in dispute.

The facts, however, have split people sharply into camps of supporters and detractors. Rudolph Giuliani was clear in his condemnation of her actions, stating that "using her position in order to teach her religion" is certainly a dismissible offense. Although Giuliani is a Republican, he is not given to pandering to religious extremists like many others in his party. He goes his own way, like when he recently supported legislation to grant city employees in hetero- and homosexual unmarried relationships the same rights and privileges as those who are married. He did this despite vociferous opposition from religionists like Orthodox Jews and the Catholic Church, and I applaud him for that. A wide variety of civil libertarians who support religious liberty have praised the dismissal as a sign that the New York City schools take seriously the concept of keeping church and state separate.

 

Defending the Indefensible

One defense of her actions is that she never raised the subject of religion - that it came up because one of her students asked about heaven. Although this is certainly true, it hardly qualifies as an excuse for her deplorable conduct. Ms. Rosario is an adult and a teacher - ostensibly in control of her own classroom settings. No teacher should ever permit classroom discussions to stray into inappropriate territory - and should certainly not lead such an inappropriate discussion.

Another defense - one which is common among those who promote the establishment of school prayer - is that she called for anyone to leave if they did not want to participate. "If you don't like it, leave" is a common refrain among the religious extremists in America. Just look at Alabama Governor Fob James, embarrassment to the nation. This unique intellectual has argued that the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states and does not restrict the actions of the state - and if people disagree, they are free to move. Perhaps no one has bothered to inform Alabama that the Civil War was fought and that the South lost? Presumably Mr. James was a product of a public school which included daily prayer - and if that isn't an argument for their ineffectiveness, I don't know what is.

At any rate, how many children are likely to stand up in front of their peers and announce that they won't participate in the religious rituals of everyone else and then actually leave the room? Few parents would not be proud of a son or daughter who had the courage and sense of self-worth to be able to stand up for what they believed in, even if it meant becoming the butt of jokes and object of taunts. Children, though, react strongly to peer pressure and do not like to appear different to their friends. Not many will take the chance of being mocked for their minority religion - or lack of religion altogether. Besides, children shouldn't even have to make a decision like that. Even adults will succumb to intimidation for holding unpopular beliefs - how can a child be expected to stand fast under the same pressures?

The simple fact not publicly acknowledged by religious extremists is that the classroom is an inherently coercive environment and authority figures like Ms. Rosario who push their beliefs on our children are religious predators. Courts have universally recognized that, especially to younger students, teachers represent authority figures who stand above questioning and contradiction. The classroom is where children do as they are told and act as they are told - and where they sit under the constant scrutiny of their peers. Just how often are our children really permitted to say "no" to their teachers?

It is in just such an environment that religiously predatory teachers can roam - interested more in spreading their faith to unsuspecting and meek students than in their job of teaching. Our public schools supposedly exist for the purpose of secular education, not religious indoctrination. In the case presently before us, we can see how the traumatic death of a schoolmate was used as an avenue for proselytization by a religious zealot insensitive to the basic religious liberty of those in her care. No one sends to their children to public schools in order to be indoctrinated into someone else's religion.

 Quote of the week:

"The Bible says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God's Holy Spirit."

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), p. 37.

Ms. Rosario does have many supporters - people who believe as she does that prayer and "God" belong as state-approved fixtures in public schools. Her case is becoming a cause celeb across the nation for conservative, evangelical Christians. Members of the Republican leadership in Washington took a quick break from their recent gay-bashing in order to praise Ms. Rosario and portray her as a "victim" of anti-Christian bigotry. Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX) introduced her at a news conference and described her as a "blessed teacher." Newt Gingrich condemned her firing, but later admitted to not actually knowing the facts of the case. Not that they are important, after all. Some supporters have even engaged in open deceit in an effort to promote her cause. One conservative, Ray Kerrison of the New York Post, had the nerve to write that this case reveals that "To utter a prayer in a public school is an academic crime demanding instant dismissal." It's obvious to anyone that this is not true - but Kerrison has made it a habit of crying "victim" anytime one of his personal beliefs is criticized and spewing hate whenever he sees a chance to impose his own brand of Christianity upon others. He should try honesty sometime and see how it feels.

 

Picking on a Little Girl

This case will make Ms. Rosario famous - but like many famous people, it will be for all the wrong reasons.

You see, in their mad dash to appease far-right extremists like Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and Dr. James Dobson of the "Focus on the Family" radio show, conveniently pious and inconveniently intolerant pundits have forgotten one item: the little girl who complained.

Doesn't that scared little girl matter? Evidently not. Apparently she has been hounded out of school with threats and curses from her former classmates - and those same classmates openly tell about how they did it. When word got out about the origin of the complaint against Ms. Rosario, the students immediately turned on the Jehovah's Witness, cornering her and preventing her from leaving the classroom. At a rally in support of the teacher, one student told about how "Everybody was cursing at her. She was crying."

Ray Kerrison, in his aforementioned article, wrote that this incident proves "...what millions have long known: namely, that the modern public-school system is unwaveringly hostile to religion." It is a common mantra from the religious right that secular society is "hostile" to religion whenever strict neutrality is observed. Kerrison meant his comment as hostility to the prayer of Ms. Rosario, but it is obvious that he couldn't be more wrong about that. He was, however, ironically correct about the existence of hostility - all of which has been directed at one poor girl.

Yes, there is clearly hostility to religion in the public-school: hostility towards those who think and believe differently from the majority. That's because such hostility exists in the general society, due in no small way to the efforts of people like Kerrison. His writing drips with seething hostility towards those who dare to be different - not once did he think it necessary to point out in his article a young Christian girl suffered at the hands of others. Presumably it is because he, like others, does not consider her Christian beliefs as worthy of defense. Hostility? You bet.

Bigoted hostility - the worst kind.

It's no wonder, then, that Jehovah's Witnesses are staunch supporters of the separation of church and state. They are what is called a "minority" - and it was precisely for people like this that our Bill of Rights exists. If it weren't for these protected civil rights, the dominant Christian groups would walk all over the rest of us, and people like DeLay and Kerrison would be cheering all the way.

 

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