Friday, June 7, 2013

Teacher Led Prayer in Public Preschool? What Would Jesus Say?

The instance:

During my four year old's in-class preschool graduation ceremony, the teacher announced we would start by "leading in a word of prayer". She called out a student to come forward, positioned the child in front, gave the child a toy microphone and ordered the child to begin reciting her prayer. The child said a few lines then the teacher said "now say "in Jesus name, amen"" at which point the child along with others repeated "in Jesus' name, amen".... With over four decades worth of hype over school sponsored prayer, I was more then a little surprised. My first thought was, "Yikes! I hope she asked that girl's parents first and that no one in here gets upset". My other thought was, while I do not have a personal problem with this prayer, has this teacher been pushing other doctrines or religious teaching on the class that I may not agree with. I see that she prays in Jesus name, but I have no idea what her religious beliefs are outside of that.

I felt I should privately acknowledge what happened and ask her if she has been including religion in her teachings throughout the year. I spoke with her in the front lobby during nap time. I told her as nicely as possible that this is one of those highly controversial subjects and some parents are not ok with it. She replied "I'm sorry, but I cannot apologize for that". She kept reiterating this line through the whole of our conversation. She said "no one else had a problem with it" and "no one has ever said a word to me before about this".  I inserted the word "religion" to which she immediately cut me off with "oh it's not a religion, it's a way of life. It's who I am". I then said again that not everyone is ok with teacher's leading students (namely preschoolers) in a specific prayer. She replied that it was "student led". Now to that, I was insulted that she would presume to claim such a preposterous notion knowing that I witnessed the entire event. I called her out by saying, "You made your students repeat after you and that is illegal". She began shaking her head "no" while quoting "freedom of speech". I said "no mam, not in the classroom". She continued shaking her head and repeating "freedom of speech" and began again with her line that she would "not allow" herself "to apologize". I did not want to get into an (obviously pointless) argument, so I left to ponder whether or not it was really a big enough issue to formally address. While this one prayer may not have posed any real harm, I am a firm believer in separation of church and state because I have seen first hand the much uglier side of teachers and administrators in southeast Texas abusing their position to impose their beliefs on local students and bully those who disagree.

The very next day that my child attended school, I checked his take home folder as always, and she had sent me a local church flyer for VBS. The timing was just a little ironic.

I only ever intended to clarify with her for future reference, that what happened and the way it happened was not appropriate. I assumed the conversation would go more along the lines of "Oh I'm sorry, I didn't think anyone would mind, won't happen again"; end of discussion... unfortunately not.. She clearly overstepped her boundaries yet thinks she did no wrong and had no intention of stopping. The issue then became one of a school teacher who is willfully exempting herself from the law in a school district that is infamous for such.

I really saw no point in attempting to write the superintendent myself, so I asked for advice on how to approach the situation and was directed to the FFRF. I had never heard of them before, but it is my understanding that in situations like these, the appropriate way to handle it when an individual is not being taken seriously is to have an organization send a letter for you, hence I consulted them and they notified the superintendent of the situation and asked that it be addressed. Contrary to popular belief, the FFRF is NOT an exclusively "atheist group".  Regardless of how, the common goal here is defending EVERY individual's constitutional rights regardless of their beliefs.

My conversation about the subject was overheard by a local reporter and, in consideration of the bigger picture, I feel it is something worth standing up for so I agreed to an interview.

 Live coverage including myself and the teacher in the orignal news story here::
http://www.12newsnow.com/story/22555111/freedom-from-religion-foundation-sends-complaint-to-beaumont-isd


I think it's safe to say she thought I was an atheist who was offended by "Jesus' name", but in reality, there are many many Christians, even entire denominations, who see the importance of separation of church and state and there is quite the case to be made against what she did based solely on the Bible and the fundamentals of Christianity which sadly, many Christians know little of. For personal reasons, I was compelled to politely explain to her why I, as a Christian, cannot condone these type of offenses in hopes that whether she ever acknowledges it or not, she might have a better understanding.

(Editing to add: Before sending this letter, I tried asking my child if his teacher had made him pray or talked to him about religion any other time. I intentionally asked in a positive way so he would feel free to tell me, but I could not get him to answer me. He kept looking away and didn't want to talk about it. I try not to make assumptions, but I did find that odd. Now that school is out, he has been randomly telling me that she taught him things. The other day he says "Mommy, I have Jesus in my heart, Ms __ just tell me that". Then something about Jesus making him be a good boy and making him grow up. It's hard to get a clear answer out of a four year old, but I repeatedly asked him in several different ways who told him that and he consistently said that this teacher along with her aid, both by name. told him these things together. It very much appears that after our conversation, she made an extra effort to indoctrinate my child. Not only without my consent as would be the case before, but now quite literally against my consent. There are thousands of varying beliefs just among Christians, hence, I am careful about what doctrines are taught to my child and by whom.)

The letter I sent her in response to our conversation:

Dear (Teacher),

I am fairly certain I gave you the wrong impression during our conversation on Friday and would like to take a moment to erase any misunderstanding there have been. Let me clarify first and foremost that I am not offended by prayer nor am I offended by students praying in school. As I have a second child who will soon be attending Amelia Elementary’s Preschool program as well, I want to ensure there is no misunderstanding and to convey what my original motives were. It occurred to me afterwards that because I opposed what took place, that you likely thought I was an atheist (or other) offended by Christianity, however nothing could be further from the truth. I grew up in an extremely fundamentalist Christian environment. I attended church school, went on mission trips and spent over 5 years in seminary and full time Christian service in various fields such as inner city Chicago and Mexico. I am proud of my background and it pains me that some assume I am not Christian simply because my views are not always in line with the majority, but I have made it a priority to choose the harder right over the easier wrong.  I commend any person who lives their faith in their daily lives as we all should and I am so thankful to live in a country that makes no restrictions against a person’s faith. Every day Christians in other parts of the earth are persecuted, imprisoned and even murdered for what they believe. We should always be thankful for the freedoms that we as Americans have. The constitution was designed to protect ALL people’s rights to their choice of faith and does not differentiate. It is intentionally neutral, not only to guarantee freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion. Contrary to popular belief, our nation was not founded as “one nation under God”.  God was not added in the pledge of allegiance until 1954 and many of our founding fathers were not Christians at all. Our fore fathers came here specifically for the purpose of freeing themselves from religious tyranny. American government protects itself from that threat by upholding a separation of church and state.  A Christian should view separation of church and state to be a good thing and it is my prayer that reasonable Christ-followers will see the wisdom of this law.

America is increasingly diverse. If the state compromises the precept of separation, the floodgates will be opened for any religions to take their place in government.  “Religion” is defined as “belief in and worship or a superhuman power”. Using the name of Jesus, even in saying it is “who I am”, or a “way of life”, is defined as “religion”. Because we feel that our religion is the “true” one, does not exclude us from obeying the law, and rightfully so.  If federally funded institutions promote Christian practices they will also have to sponsor practices from all other religions. It’s easy to say we want prayer in school until we realize that may not be exclusive to Christianity. This is very important to think about as we develop our opinions on this subject. Christians and teachers should approach the subject of prayer in school with wisdom and discernment.

 To quote Supreme court Justice Hugo Black, “A union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.”  And Supreme Court of Wisconsin “There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed.  Let it once enter our common school, they would be destroyed”.

Christianity is not an exception. Not all people have the same beliefs and not all Christians have the same beliefs. We can look to history to see the dangers of a government sanctioned version of Christianity. The holocaust itself was based on a false interpretation of scripture. The Nazis had “Gott mit uns” inscribed on their belt buckles which means “God with us”. The Catholic church celebrated Hitler’s birthday until 1945. We need to recognize the ways in which religious fervor has led to the misuse of the Bible and prayer as a weapon against minorities. Even recent history clearly details how communities attempt to impose religion on their public schools to the extent that many Christians have even gone beyond angry protests to threats, violence and arson.

Religion is private and schools are public. Let’s be clear about the facts and the law, no one is telling anyone they cannot pray. No one has said we cannot have prayer in school. The issue is when a prayer is government sponsored or coerced.  While in a government office or federally funded position of authority the law requires strict neutrality. If I, as a Christian, wouldn’t want to be subjected to a government sponsored Islamic prayer, than I should not subject others to a government sponsored Christian prayer. Christians who fight for teacher led prayer in schools are unwittingly lobbying for something they could never accept. My children both attend a Christian daycare five days a week. That is a private institution that can teach and preach all they want and I have no objection to that. Amelia Elementary on the other hand is a federally funded public school that must keep in line with the laws regarding religious neutrality.

“School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the message to members of the audience who are non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders favored members of the political community” – US Supreme Court. Senator Phillip A Hart, “The public school classroom is no place for me to try and impose my world formula for prayer on children who don’t share it, and for that very reason, I don’t want my children in a public school classroom to be exposed to someone else’s religion or formula”.

 Public schools exist to educate, not to proselytize. Bringing a public display of prayer into the classroom is coercive and invasive. Children in public schools, especially non-discerning preschoolers, are a captive audience. What four year old could view a recited prayer as “voluntary”? It is my God ordained duty to meet the spiritual needs of my children by teaching them about religion, no one else’s.  I prefer no one pray or share their religion with my child without my knowledge and consent.  I place grave importance on teaching children the ability to study and think critically about religion than to be exposed to the spectrum of viewpoints of their teachers. Thinking critically is necessary to becoming a Christ-follower; every child must make a personal decision to follow Christ. Forced faith is not a Christian practice. Yes, teachers and politicians both have and will continue to covertly or overtly use their position to promote their beliefs, but that does not make it right. “It is appalling, unethical and wrong and both teachers and parents who have some modicum of decency should be vigilant about demanding accountability and change.”  We are free to make any choice we wish, but we are not free to exempt ourselves from the consequences of those choices.

From the TX Assoc. of School Boards Legal Services:

"The district or an individual employee may not require, encourage, or coerce a student to pray or not to pray. page3

"Student Speakers:
Under federal law, is prayer or other religious speech permitted over a public address system? 
A public school may not permit school-sponsored prayer to be given over the public address system at school or school events, even if the prayer is given by a student." Page 6

"Is student-initiated, student-led prayer allowed at graduation ceremonies? The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school officials cannot arrange for prayer to be included in a graduation ceremony." Page 8

"May employees express their religious views on campus? 
Employees’ statements in their official capacity are attributed to the school district, and consequently, employees are not at liberty to express their personal religious beliefs in a way that violates the constitutional prohibition on an establishment of religion." Page 11

"Can a school employee lead or participate in a religious activity with students? 
A school employee may not lead or participate in a religious activity with students while actingin the employee’s official capacity." Page 12

 From the BISD Administration Guide:
Page 16 - The educator shall comply with standard practices and ethical conduct toward students, professional colleagues, school officials, parents, and members of the community. In conscientiously conducting his or her affairs, the educator shall exemplify the highest standards of professional
commitment.

PRINCIPLE I: Professional Ethical Conduct
The Texas educator shall maintain the dignity of the profession by respecting and obeying the law, demonstrating personal integrity, and exemplifying honesty.
1. The educator shall not intentionally misrepresent official policies of the school district or educational institution and shall clearly distinguish those  views from personal attitudes and opinions.

Moral Turpitude:
Moral turpitude includes but is not limited to dishonesty; fraud; deceit; theft; misrepresentation; deliberate violence; base, vile, or depraved acts…

Employees shall comply with the standards of conduct set out in this policy and with any other policies, regulations, and guidelines that impose duties, requirements, or standards attendant to their status as District employees. Violation of any policies, regulations, and guidelines may result in disciplinary action, including termination of employment. [See DCD and DF series]

All District employees shall be expected to adhere to the standards of conduct set out in the "Code of Ethics and Standard Practices for Texas Educators." [See DH(EXHIBIT)]
3. The educator shall not use institutional or professional privileges for personal or partisan advantage.
5. The educator shall comply with written local school board policies, state regulations, and applicable state and federal laws.

PRINCIPLE III: Ethical Conduct Toward Professional Colleagues
2. The educator shall not willfully make false statements about a colleague or the school system

PRINCIPLE IV: Ethical Conduct Toward Students,Towards parents and community:
2. The educator shall endeavor to understand community cultures, and relate the home environment of students to the school.
4. The educator shall manifest a positive role in school public relations.

I would also VERY much like to draw attention to the issue of morale in this situation. A primary purpose of public education is to shape good citizens.  I pray every day that my children will be influenced to develop good solid values. I believe it is safe to say that as a minimum, this is a goal we can all agree on. The Bible speaks very clearly on obeying the laws of the land and respecting government. God places a very high value on authority.  The Bible tells us that all authority comes from God.

Romans 13:1-2Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

God’s word tells us that as followers of Christ we are to be obedient to secular laws and government. The law is meant to keep law and order on the earth. (Rom 13:4 1 Peter 2:14-15)

1 Peter 2:13-14  Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, 14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.

Submission to authority is basic to Christian life. When we defy the law, which is rebellion, it hinders our testimony to Christ, even more so when we are willfully breaking the law to supposedly glorify Him. That is direct disobedience to the scriptures and does not honor God. Rebellion is defined as “the unwillingness to be ruled by any source other than self”. It is in contempt with everything true to Christian values. (1 Samuel 15:23) According to Romans 13, 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 2 we are to submit to and pray for all authority, but we are never to place ourselves above the law, even the laws of man. The issue I had with the organized display of prayer at Zander’s graduation was almost exclusively because of this point right here. I expect all persons in authority over my child, particularly the office of teaching, to uphold a certain level or morale which means obeying the law, respecting authority and dealing honestly. Young children are very impressionable and they learn more from how we live than by what we tell them.

The last thing I’d like to point out is what Jesus taught about praying in public. Too many Christians don’t really base their religious lives on the teachings of Christ which is made obvious by the “public, ostentatious manner” in which many Christians pray. The Bible is very clear about how we are to pray.

Matthew 6: 5-6And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Jesus promoted private prayer and was suspect of public or long prayers:

Matthew 6:6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:5 And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward

Luke 18:10-14 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 5:16  But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray

Luke 6:12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.

Mark 1:35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.

The message could not be clearer. We are to abstain from making prayer a public display. For example, the See You at the Pole campaign, the whole motive and of that is to pray in a manner so as to be seen by the rest of the school. The real purpose isn’t simply to pray. Students can pray anywhere they like. The purpose is to be seen by others who don’t follow the same belief system. This is exactly what the Bible tells us NOT to do. The same applies to prayers at football games that turn into debates and law suits in which Christians actually become even more fervent and arrogant in making public displays of their religion. These kinds of situations are absolutely not about prayer nor are they about exalting God, but rather exalting self. Coerced or repeated prayers, particularly by those not old enough to have any religious discernment, are also not real prayers. Prayer is a personal conversation with God, sincere and from a humble heart, not a public display for attention and not a cluster of meaningless words uttered by someone too young to understand what they are saying.

Even Jewish writings from that time are equally condemning of exhibitionist prayer, from which we can gather that public displays of prayer were not a mainstream practice.  Those who push for prayer in schools and courts and practice public demonstrations of prayer claiming they are compelled by their faith to do so don’t seem to know the Bible they claim to base their beliefs on.

In conclusion, I hope you now understand why I had an issue with the graduation prayer, not because of my religious affiliation or personal feelings. The issue progressed with your response that you could “not apologize” (implying what you did was right and “Christian”, which we both are now informed on the falsity of that idea) and that it was “freedom of speech”  while shaking your head no at me acknowledging the laws against (falsely implying that you were not aware of any such laws) and that “everyone else was ok with it” or “no one has ever had a problem with it” (falsely implying that you know the feelings of every person present) and suggesting that the prayer was” student led” though in fact you announced the prayer was going to take place, called the child out, handed her a toy microphone, urged her to pray and then had her repeat the closing line after you (aside from the fact that four year olds believe and do exactly what they are told, a preschooler does not take it upon themselves to independently choose their faith and then to organize a graduation prayer without prompting, to suggest so is absolutely absurd) .

If a person truly feels there was no wrong in their actions, there would be no need to manipulate facts and skirt around the laws and rules. As the teacher of my child and as a federally funded employee of the school system, I expect to be met with honesty. Any teacher may have any views they wish, but they may not, according to the laws and the constitution, force or coerce their beliefs on their students. As Christians we most effectively share Christ by how we live and how we treat others, not by how loudly or publicly we pray. I personally feel it is counter-productive to convey a prideful attitude and use such actions as public defiance of state and federal laws as well as proselytizing young children against their parents’ wishes to make a showing of our affiliations. This is not in line with what Christ taught or lived Himself. In fact Jesus rebuked the ones who did this and called them Pharisees. We all live what we feel in our hearts, however I base my beliefs about God and Jesus on the Bible and my knowledge of the scriptures tell me that to use Jesus’ name in a showing that clearly does the exact opposite of what He tells us to do is blasphemous and I personally would wish to have no part of that nor would I knowingly permit my child to be coerced into such an act. It breaks my heart every day that so many Christians are “tarnishing the place of religion in public life because they cannot accommodate diversity”.
                                                                                              

  Thank You


Editing to add:

The motive behind the media attention was NOT because of a "little prayer", but because of a school system that is steadily becoming infamous for religious bullying, segregation and just generally running a muck. I agreed to speak out NOT because of the prayer and NOT because I have any personal problem with the teacher, I do not, but because of all the students in this area who are bullied and mistreated for not conforming to the popular view. If nothing else, I hope they know that they are not overlooked and there ARE people who care and are willing to stand up for what's right. If any of you are reading this, please don't ever feel that you or your issues are unimportant, and please do not be afraid to reach out!

15 comments:

  1. Good for you! I'm glad you took a stand. We may have different belief systems but you did what was right and used biblical references to make the teacher understand that what she did was incorrect. Hopefully it won't happen again. If it does, you may need to take it up with the school's administration. Good luck in the future!

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  2. Amber, I hope you will try to garner some media attention for this specific incident, as this teacher clearly does not understand the law or ethics pertaining to her role in a public school. Proud of you!

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  3. That behavior will stop, or she will be fired. It's as simple as that, really. No further explanation is necessary.

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  4. Fantastic read and I hope the school deals with this teacher accordingly. I am seriously considering home school for my daughter once she's old enough. I am very concerned with the quality of education in SETX.

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  5. BRAVO!!! What an excellent letter! Thank you for standing up for what is right!

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  6. beautifully written!!! I shared this link on facebook bc it's spot on!

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  7. I commend you on your thorough and insightful response to this teacher's irresponsible actions. It is all too often that a simple correction is received as persecution, an affront to a person's way of life. I sincerely wish there were more christians like you, reasonable people who understand the value and true meaning of religious freedom, while actually putting into practice the values you preach. Thank you!
    - a friendly atheist

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  8. thank you everyone for you're encouragement.

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  9. This is wonderful! Your letter strikes just the right balance. It's thoughtful and polite. I hope this situation is resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

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  10. Amazing! Well said and very thorough.

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  11. Awesome! As an atheist, it's really cool to read about this and I think you did a great job and said a lot of wonderful things.

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  12. Very well written and thought out. Sadly, I fear it falls on many a deaf ear... or closed mind.

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