The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Teachers and School Prayer

When most people think of prayer in the schools, they think of children. Many people forget that teachers are also in the schools and are put into situations where they cannot avoid prayer.

By
Joan Warshauer


As a teacher in the Southern part of the United States, I am frequently required to attend meetings or participate in assemblies that begin with a public prayer. These are not the "moments of silence" which are daily announced for the students to observe before the class day begins. Usually they are very long and either have Jesus mentioned throughout the prayer, or are ended with the declaration "In Jesus' name we pray." These sectarian additions have been a bone of contention between me and the administrators for years. I would like to share a few examples of how pervasive and discriminatory they have been in my experience in Georgia public schools.

I teach in 2 schools presently and have had varying experiences in the other 4 that I have taught in over the past 10 years. Most of the time, during the school day, prayers have NOT been an issue for the students. It is after hours at faculty meetings or PTA programs when prayer becomes an issue.

About 3 years ago, one of my schools got a new principal who is a born again Christian. She felt compelled to pray in Jesus' name at every faculty gathering. She ended her first meeting by inviting us to come to her with any concerns we might have. Shortly after this meeting I requested to speak with her privately and I voiced my concern over her VERY sectarian and long prayer in Jesus' name. She gave me the option to wait outside of the room till their prayer was concluded. I did not want to be excluded from the prayer (I am in the Bible Belt, can't avoid prayer) but wanted it to be non-sectarian so that I would be INCLUDED in the prayer which was for the benefit of our children and a good school year.

The next week I was back in her office requesting it again. She said "Is this the Jesus thing again? I said yes. She disgustedly said, "Well, what do you want us to say?" I asked only that she leave out Jesus or just say God as she was still kicking me out of the prayer at the end.

By this time it was the end of the school year and the next week we went out of town as a staff to a resort to have 2 days of staff development. This was official school business, they had presentations, speakers and lectures. On Sunday morning, I arrived at the breakfast to hear Spirituals being sung, loud prayers being said with a room full of hearty amens, etc. I could not eat breakfast or enter without being a part of this. It was not listed in the itinerary and I had not been told this would happen. I had already endured at least 6 very long prayers that excluded me and was by this time very angry. I had come in another person's car and was unable to leave.

A friend found me sitting on the step outside and as she became aware of my anger at being discriminated against and disregarded, she agreed to drive me home.

The next 3 days were teacher work days at school and I did not return to that school without feeling literally ill. Many of the teachers had said things such as "What is HER problem?" when they saw me in tears talking to my friend the day before. I had never felt such discrimination in my life. I decided to go to the doctor due to bad dreams and anxiety caused by this experience.

When I returned the next school year, I was prepared for my encounter with the principal. She called me in and asked me why I was avoiding everyone as I was usually out in the halls and very cheerful. I said I didn't want to discuss it. She pressed me for some time and I finally said I felt I was being discriminated against with the Christian prayers she was having at every occasion. She finally agreed after some lengthy discussion to change back to "a moment of silence" at the meetings.

The next day I was told that she had changed the faculty meeting day to a day I was at my other school. She had gone back to prayers that included Jesus in every sentence and "in Jesus' name."

In another incident, a different principal had been coming on the PA system on Friday afternoons to address the students about going to church on Sunday. At that school I was not the only Jew and one of my fellow Jews expressed her concern about saying church. The principal changed her address to state "You boys and girls make sure you go to church or synagogue, or wherever you go." I found it inappropriate that she would make any such recommendation at all.

Recently I was at a faculty and staff meeting with yet another principal who invited a new teacher to lead the prayer as she was studying for the ministry. Her prayer was preceded by the principal telling us to all join hands in a circle. I knew I was in for a VERY protracted Christian prayer. After she said Jesus for the 5th or 6th time, I stepped out of the circle and had to break the circle to leave the room. The next day the principal apologized profusely and said she didn't know I was Jewish. I said I had never had cause to tell her. A Catholic friend of mine had gone and intensely confronted the leader of the prayer in my defense. What they don't realize is many of the Christians do not want to pray in a school setting either.

I realize that living in "The Bible Belt" means being in contact with intensely religious Christians. I would be more comfortable if the whole issue of prayer was not one that I was forced to deal with in such meetings.


 
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