Interview: Biblical Proportions

March 01, 2004 5 min read
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Joan DelFattore: Religious rights for individuals.

The oftentimes inordinate amount of influence that advisory groups have over public schools has long been an interest of Joan DelFattore, a professor of English and legal studies at the University of Delaware. In fact, it led her to write the prize- winning 1992 book, What Johnny Shouldn’t Read, in which she examined how censorship efforts from across the political spectrum have resulted in dull and almost unreadable textbooks.

In The Fourth R: Conflicts Over Religion in America’s Public Schools (Yale), DelFattore turns her attention to religious discourse—and, in particular, to what teachers and students have said and have not been able to say in terms of school prayer. DelFattore, looking closely at key court cases, details a long history of contention over such matters. She also discusses how Americans have come to a partial (though not necessarily lasting) truce in the religious wars.

DelFattore recently spoke to Teacher Magazine about the court cases, the special interest groups, and the misunderstandings that have led to the shifting roles of religion in public education.

Q: Americans have been arguing about the role of religion in schools for more than 200 years. Why?

A: I think there is something inherent in human nature that makes us believe certain things about big questions such as life after death, the existence of God. Each of us sees these as so obviously true that we can’t believe that somebody doesn’t see it the same way. So we tend to join with those who have the same vision and contend with those who see it differently, even if those differences are very small.

Look at the colonies, for instance. People established communities consisting of people from their own religious groups. But as soon as they finished cutting down trees and chasing the bears off Main Street, this changed. They started arguing among themselves, forming sects and schisms. This is what I mean when I say that it’s inherent in human nature that we contend with those who don’t see it the same way we do.

Q: Didn’t school officials argue in the 19th century that it was OK to have prayer in the schools as long as it was nonsectarian?

A: Yes, but the Catholics, who were increasing in both numbers and political influence, kept saying that the prayer you’re talking about wasn’t nonsectarian but Protestant. They wanted Catholic prayer. I think the key case here is Cincinnati v. Minor in 1872. Both Protestants and Catholics wanted prayer in the schools that would be acceptable to everyone and which would help the Catholics get money for their own schools. What made that attempt fail was when the Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others came in and started saying, “We want this, we want that.” This broke the belief that you could have, if not nonsectarian prayer, prayer in Protestant and Catholic schools that were both funded by the state. This is when school officials threw up their hands and said, “We ought to get out of the religion business.” The removal of religion from the schools was further cemented by Abington v. Schempp in 1963, when the [U.S.] Supreme Court said that the state cannot sponsor prayer.

Q: Aren’t some people now trying to bring back school prayer by appealing to it as something from our country’s Judeo-Christian tradition?

A: Right, except that there’s no such thing as Judeo-Christianity. The core of Christianity is that Jesus is God and the Messiah. Judaism says he wasn’t God and wasn’t the Messiah.

Q: So where does this idea of Judeo-Christianity come from?

A: The people who say this tend to be Christians whose goal is to have Christianity presented as the governmental norm. Because they don’t want to be accused of anti-Semitism and want to be seen as inclusive, they call it Judeo-Christianity because Jesus was a Jew. They say that because both Jews and Christians believe in the Old Testament, we should have it in the schools, though they clearly see the book of Isaiah, for instance, as foreseeing the coming of Christ. That’s not how the Jews see it. And... there are plenty of people besides Jews and Christians in the world. In terms of their argument about how the founding fathers were Judeo-Christian—well, the founding fathers would have had a fit about amalgamating everything.

Q: What happened after the Supreme Court in 1963 said the state can’t sponsor prayer? Did school prayer go away?

A: Not exactly. At first there was a lot of outrage, because opponents and advocates alike took the ruling to mean that there simply can’t be any religious exercises in schools at all. So if a kid tries to read a Bible in study hall, he’s told he can’t do it. That’s what led people like Samuel Ericsson [the Christian Legal Society director in the 1980s] to say, “We need to draw a distinction between the ban on state-sponsored prayer and the idea that individuals still have a right to pray.” And this distinction eventually became the basis for what’s termed “equal access,” the notion that the state can’t sponsor prayer, but that kids can still pray. After all, the government is supposed to be neutral in matters of religion, neither encouraging it nor inhibiting it. So if you say that you can read any book you want to in study hall but the Bible, that’s hard to define as neutrality.

“Equal access” is where we are now, though there’s a wide variance in how it’s interpreted. Some principals are very strict about allowing no prayer that could be interpreted as something supported by the schools. Others use the idea of student prayer to continue to have the school-sponsored prayer they had in the past—like the principal in Mississippi who in the ‘90s told students that if they voted for prayer, they could have it.

Q: Will we ever have a school-prayer amendment?

A: It does not appear to me that we will. Anything that we settle on will work only sometimes, in some places, and will eventually get changed again. People differ too much. They get support when talking about school prayer in general terms, but when they get to specifics, it falls apart. Also, the country is just so diverse now. We’re not talking about Protestants versus Catholics anymore. We’re talking about people who don’t even worship the same God. Trying to have school prayer under such circumstances approaches the farcical.

Q: What is your own opinion about the school prayer issue? What should be allowed and what prohibited?

A: I think equal access is the best way at this time to deal with this issue because it’s based on two principles I agree with. It says that the state should not be in the business of promoting religion and that the state must not inhibit religion. In my view, religious rights are inherent in the individual and have nothing to do with the state. However, if individuals want to engage in religious speech when they would be free to engage in any speech— such as at a meeting before school—I do think that they have that right.

—David Ruenzel


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