America's Constitutional Heritage:
Religion and Our Public Schools
A Video Presentation by the American Civil Liberties Union
Following is the transcript of "America's Constitutional Heritage:
Religion and Our Public Schools."
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
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
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 government interference.
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
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
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
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
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 minority denominations.
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 Rennsalaer, Indiana.
-- Indiana Segment --
Allan Berger: Rennselear is a fairly conservative community. Its a rural
community, its a fairly homogenous community. Its a church-going
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 can give.
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 schools.
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
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 prayer meetings.
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 church.
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 with it.
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 harassment.
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 why.
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
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 statistics.
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 lower.
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,
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.
At the end of this video, there is an address where you can get additional
information. Thank you for your time today. Goodbye - and may the
blessings of Heaven be with all of us.
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