Monday, March 17, 2008

A Re-run: Is God allowed in public schools?

In my last post, Mrs. C. and I got into a discussion on whether or not God is allowed in public schools. This is a subject that I feel very strongly about. I grew up in a lower-middle class Catholic family in Minneapolis. My parents wanted me to go to college, but they didn’t want me to pursue a career based on how much money I could make. That’s one of the reasons I ended up becoming a teacher. I’ve never been one to wear my religion on my sleeve, but I’ve always felt like I’m practicing my faith when I do my job well. One of my earliest posts was on this subject, and I thought my best answer to Mrs. C. would be to do a re-run of that post. Some readers have already seen it, but I think there are a number of people who check into this blog now who didn't when I first started. So like I told Mrs. C., if TV can do re-runs all the time, why can't I do one? Here it is:

Of all of the myths that are spread by critics of public education, this is the one that I find the most offensive. It is the myth that God is no longer allowed in public schools. In November of 2001, a couple of months after 9/11, I received one of those mass emails that has become so common. It had been forwarded by one of our teachers to everyone on our staff, so please understand the context of my response. This email message, like so many of them, was supposed to be profound, but, because of the way it began, it only managed to anger me. It began by telling about an interview with Billy Graham's daughter, Anne, that had been shown on TV. I am sure that Anne Graham is a wonderful person, but like so many others, when it comes to public education, she doesn't know what she is talking about. I will share with you the beginning of the email, which includes Ms. Graham's statement, and then the reply that I sent.

Billy Graham's daughter was being interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this happen?" And Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said "I believe that God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman that He is, I believe that He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand that He leave us alone?"

I want to make it clear that this is not meant as a criticism of anyone for sending along this e-mail message. I have no doubt that anyone doing so had the best of intentions. I'm responding because it contains a message that infuriates me when I hear it, and I've been hearing it for a number of years, now. That is the message that we do not allow God in public schools.

One of the reasons this message angers me so much is because it is frequently used by the people who decide to homeschool their children. If we didn't have so many Warroad kids being homeschooled, we wouldn't be in as much danger every year of losing some of our best young teachers and having to cut programs that benefit kids.

The people who promote this message object to the fact that we do not have prayer at the beginning of our school days, like we did up until the mid-1960s. Everyone knows that the basic reason we don't have that anymore is because we have a separation between church and state in this country. The alternative to this is to have whoever is in power impose their interpretation of their religion on society. If you want to know how this would work just look at the Taliban's policies regarding women in Afghanistan.

Many good people argue that the separation of church and state shouldn't preclude prayer in school. Although I'm not sure they're correct, I don't think they are being unreasonable. But I can also remember the discomfort I felt as one of the few Catholic kids in a predominantly Protestant elementary school in the 1960's when we said a prayer in class that did not include the sign of the cross. It wouldn't bother me now, but when I was that young, it did. I never felt any of that discomfort when I said prayers with my family. I wonder how hard it would be today to come up with a prayer that would not cause some discomfort for some of the kids with all of our various religions. I'm not saying that people who believe we should have prayer at the beginning of our day are definitely wrong, but I am saying that those of us who have reservations about this are not necessarily Godless.

Although I wouldn't feel comfortable leading my first hour class in a prayer, God is very important in my life, and I try to bring that to school with me every day. I think there are many teachers like me in that respect.

Even if we don't have school prayers, that doesn't mean we don't allow God in school. Maybe I'm spiritually confused, but I see God more in the way people go about their everyday affairs than in whether or not they are comfortable with public prayer. When teachers go out of their way to help students, isn't God in our school? When some kid who "gets it" tries to help some kid who doesn't "get it," isn't God in our school? When we saw all that concern and love in our school for Katie Olafson [a sophomore who had been killed in a car accident] and her family last year, wasn't God in our school? When Rick McBride's beeper goes off and he goes running out of school to help out with the volunteer fire department because he wants to help people, isn't God in our school? When we buy frozen food, magazines, candy or candles for ridiculous prices, or when we fork out ten to twenty bucks for raffle tickets that we don't really want because we feel like we should help out kids involved in various activities, isn't God in our school? When special ed. or ESL or Indian ed. teachers come and plead with some crotchety old teacher, like me, for some kid that they care about, isn't God in our school? When Nadine ran her food shelf program last week wasn't God in our school?

We are fortunate in Warroad that most concerned parents who care about their kids send them to our school. They send them to our school because they care about their kids, but also because they care about other people's kids and the community. Am I wrong when I think I see God in many of them? These parents are confident in the values they've instilled in their kids, so they don't keep them home out of fear that they will somehow be corrupted by all the sinners among our students and faculty. It is their kids more than anyone or anything else--teachers, administrators, or all the computers money could buy--that make this school a good place to learn. We see these kids everyday, and we see what they do, and I would bet there are at least some kids like that in every public school in America. So if some people can't see God in our public schools, maybe they better take a better look.


Blogger Mrs. C said...

Thanks for the re-run! Sometimes we catch things we missed the first time when we watch our favourite shows again!

As a scholar of American history, no doubt you already know that the concept of the separation of church and state was outlined in a letter of Thomas Jefferson, not the Constitution. True that some Founders were Deists and worse, but for the most part they were well-educated men (How many educated in public school? I'm guessing it's a round number.) who truly believed the words of Psalm 33:12, that "Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD," and they opened their days in prayer during the Continental Congress.

The idea of this "separation," again as you already know, is that we as Americans are not obligated to support any one particular church or set of customs.

It wasn't meant to be so that we could tax everyone to support schools that teach about sex and masturbation to our young people and tolerate "gay pride," and then wonder why these intolerant Christian prigs choose to think that they should educate their own children elsewhere.

I'm not saying that there aren't EVER good things that can happen in public school. But instilling Christian principles is NOT one of them. A glance at the immodest dress and behaviour of *most* teens attending these schools speaks volumes about how surrendered these children really are to the Lord JESUS. And no, I'm not the American Taliban saying that to be a true Christian one must wear a dress to the mid-calf... but when girls are allowed to parade into school in a tight T-shirt with words like STRUMPET emblazoned in rhinestones across the breast area... well... we *should* all agree we've just gone a liiiitle far, don't you think??

3/17/2008 6:28 AM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

PS. I'm so sorry that I felt I had to litter my comments with words like "masturbation" and "breast," but unfortunately these are subjects that must be discussed in this day and age.

I wish it were possible to have a discussion without these words, but it's becoming increasingly impossible!

3/17/2008 6:30 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

As some famous wag once quipped:
"As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school."

3/17/2008 7:27 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Depends what you mean by "Is God allowed in public schools?"

Clearly, if a deity showed up (or even any sufficiently powerful supernatural being), none of us mortals are going to keep it from entering a school. It's not the deity itself being kept out of the school, it's government-supported proselytization.

Prayer, in fact, is allowed in public schools. A student who chooses to pray on their free time may do so. They can read their religious scripture at school if they like. They can even encourage other students to pray. What may not occur is teacher-led prayer.

It's fairly easy to steer clear of issues in most circumstances. There are a few sticky points, like the valedictorians who want to credit a deity in their speech at graduation, but these close cases don't seem to make up most of the problems. There often seem to be fairly clear violations: administrators picking proselytizing texts intentionally or forbidding kids from reading the Bible during recess.

Mrs. C,

There's nothing about separation of church and state that prevents establishing a dress code. It is actually easier to do so under a secular environment, unless the planned dress code includes religious elements (it's probably a bad idea at a public school to try to enforce wearing the crucifix).

"is that we as Americans are not obligated to support any one particular church or set of customs. "

I'm curious why you would add the italicized text. Things like wearing clothing or caring for one's children until they're 18 are customs, do you mean Americans are not required to support them, or more to the point that governmental actors such as teachers are not required to support them?

"When some kid who "gets it" tries to help some kid who doesn't "get it," isn't God in our school? "

For this, and your other assertions, I certainly don't mind if the religious interpret it that way. Depending on your definition of "god", it could be a rather nice way to think of it (though, I think the definition I'd have to give god to support the nicest possible interpretation of that would be considered sacrilege by most). Personally, I prefer to give credit to the people actually doing the heavy lifting, rather than a deity.

3/17/2008 8:57 AM  
Anonymous daniel simms said...

I interpret Mrs. C's comments to mean an objection to being forced, by taxation, to support an institution that teaches what she considers to be immoral values to children. Which is what I would consider to be an perfectly valid objection, much the same as those who object to government funding for abortion because they consider abortion to be the destruction of innocent life.

3/17/2008 9:44 AM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

I was actually thinking more of Sharia law in its extreme, where unaccompanied women get stoned to death. That sort of "wearing a burqua" custom.

But if you want to wear one, that's fine, too.

Though Daniel, I do agree with you that I don't want my tax dollars funding abortion. I do understand that we don't get to vote individually on where our dollars go, however. But I'll vote accordingly.

3/17/2008 12:28 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mrs. C., there is not much that I can say that would make a difference to you, because many of the objections you mention go hand in hand with our being public schools and being answerable to the public. Unless I'm mistaken, the great majority of the public believes sex education should be taught in the schools. The way girls dress in school is a reflection of our society. We have a dress code, but kids--especially girls--are amazing at finding holes anything we come up with. What we need more than anything is for parents to police their own kids on this. Most do; some don't. Once again, this is a situation where the more good parents we have in our school district, the better off we are. I will simply repeat, however, that my faith is central to what I have chosen to do for a living and how I approach my job. It is a central part of my life, and it is always there. So when I hear anyone say, "God is not allowed in public schools," I find it quite offensive.

Crypticlife, it's good to hear from you again!

3/17/2008 4:01 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

I hear what you're saying, Dennis, and I actually agree that these things are a reflection of our society.

The schools should be answerable to the public; I agree with that, too. And I think to the parents as well. To me, that means when there's an obviously controversial subject or teaching, parents should opt their child IN instead of having to find out, dig around constantly, and opt their children OUT.

I know that concept can be taken to extremes, but I think you know what I mean.

3/17/2008 5:01 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Two more things, Mrs. C.. First of all, I believe strongly in public schools, and I also believe in separation of church and state. And, yes, I know the term "wall of separation" came from Jefferson, and is found nowhere in the Constitution. But that it what the first amendment has come to mean, and I think it has made us a much better nation.

The second thing is that I recognize that we are very imperfect in public schools. But when Jesus came he didn't choose perfect people as his followers. He chose prostitutes, tax collectors, one person who betrayed him, people who worried about who was the most important, and people who lacked courage when push came to shove. It sounds to me like he would be right at home in a public school.

3/17/2008 5:30 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

I'm not that well versed in the U.S. Constitution - is there not an "establishment clause" to the effect that no religion will receive a boost from the state that's not also available to every other religion?

3/17/2008 10:30 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Yes, Ian, there is an establishment clause which was passed to prevent the national government from establishing a national religion. Like so many things in our constitution it is subject to a very broad range of interpretation. What Mrs. C. is referring to is the term "wall of separation" which is often used in discussions about this. She correctly points out that the phrase is found nowhere in the Constitution, and was coined by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was not at the Constitutional Convention, and he played no direct part in putting together the Bill of Rights.

3/18/2008 2:27 AM  
Blogger what'sinaname said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/19/2008 12:22 PM  
Blogger what'sinaname said...

I want to thank Mr. Fermoyle for this blog. I like being reminded that God is present everywhere no matter what "Christians" say.
Christ was all about relationships - not about stepping away when things were not what he wanted them to be. Jesus hung in there with us while he was here on earth, and I think Christians should approach public school in the same way. We should hang in there with the masses and do our best to be as Christ-like as possible without offending others. God loves all and wants all to know Him.
I wonder about Christians who want a perfect world around themselves (which is not impossible by the way) when that is not what we are called to do during our time on earth.

3/19/2008 12:26 PM  
Anonymous a homeschool mom said...

Interesting post. I am a new reader and have been reading some of your other posts as well.

When you say that God is still in school, I believe you. I do think that he is still there because He is everywhere. However, are you allowed to talk of your faith in the classroom? If someone in your class is hurting, can you pray with them? Can you show them comfort with the words of Jesus?
When Nadine put food on the shelf on the shelf for the need, did she do it because it was a "good" thing to do or because God lives in her heart and her love for God was showing through. A lot of people do good things, but that doesn't mean that they are doing them for God. And really, that is OK. I believe that God uses all things for His good.

Anyway, I got off track. What does the school use for a moral code? Is it the Bible? Do you tell someone that they can't steal because it is wrong? Why is it wrong? Because society says that it is wrong? If that is your answer, then God is not there. Society has become god.

Oh, and I don't homeschool because my children can not pray openly with other people. Actually, I don't think that prayer should be sanctioned by the public school. However, public school is not neutral.

The reason Jesus did not choose perfect people to follow Him is because there are no perfect people. They recognized their need for forgiveness and followed him. He didn't tell them "Oh, it is OK that you are a prostitute. I understand." No, He told them, "Go, your sins are forgiven and sin no more." I really don't think that Jesus would be comfortable in a setting that chooses to worship the creation rather than the Creator, promotes sexual immorality, and does not recognize their need for forgiveness.

Anyway, this got much longer than I intended. I really mean no offense. It just saddens me that we as Christians are supposed to side step our beliefs in the name of the common good. I wouldn't expect the school to teach my faith, but they do teach against it. That therein lies my problem.

I appreciate your dedication to teaching. It is obvious from my reading that you are good and dedicated teacher. I think teachers have an increasingly difficult job for a number of reasons.

Best wishes!

3/22/2008 12:40 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Homeschool mom, thank you for your comment. First of all, let me make something clear that I've failed to say up until now. I have no problem for those who do not send their kids to public schools because they want their religion explicitly included in their education. I am Catholic, and although I went to a public school, I respect those who choose to send their kids to Catholic schools. The same goes for anyone who sends their kids to any other type of religious school and for those who homeschool their kids because they want to include religion. My problem is with that statement, "God is not allowed in public schools."

I'm not sure what you mean by this, but I think you go way too far when you say that we are promoting sexual immorality. As I said in an earlier comment, our society is reflected in public schools. Some of those things aren't good, but we do the best we can to deal with them. But we are imperfect, and we deal with them imperfectly.

Regarding why people in our school do the good things they do, I firmly believe that anytime someone performs an act of kindness for someone else, God is there whether the people are aware of it or not.

3/22/2008 2:12 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

One more point, Homeschool Mom. I would love to see a survey of people in various occupations regarding how many of them practice their religion. I'll bet that public school teachers would be pretty high on that list of occupations.

3/22/2008 2:27 PM  
Anonymous a homeschool mom said...

Dennis, thank you for being kind in your reply. I would like to say I am in no way trying to say that you do not practice your faith by choosing to teach in a public school. I am sorry if I implied that. I understand what you are trying to say in your post now.

I did say, however, that I do believe God uses all for His good.

Perhaps I did go too far when I said that the schools promote sexual immorality. Promote was not the right word, yet I do not believe that it is denounced either.

I guess that I kind of went off on a tangent on my last comment. :) I also meant to say that just because I homeschool my kids doesn't mean that I don't care about other people's children or the community. I don't keep them home because I think that other children are going to corrupt my kids. I am really hope that you don't think that all homeschoolers believe that.

3/22/2008 3:35 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank YOU for YOUR kind reply, Homeschool Mom. One thing all of us have to keep in mind-especially me--is to be careful about making generalizations.

3/24/2008 2:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Homeschool mom says: "However, are you allowed to talk of your faith in the classroom? "

I'm sure Homeschool Mom would have a fit if her child did poorly on a test or skinned his knee on the playground and the loving, Muslim teacher wanted her child to say a Muslim prayer to Allah.

There are many, many religions in the USA and parents such as her would be highly offended if their children were proselytized in another faith, yet also want everyone else's children proselytized in HER faith.

Any child in any public school may pray silently and unobtrusively at any time (which is after all what the Bible tells us to do).

4/01/2008 5:25 AM  

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