The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

On Obama, School Prayer & and Church/State Separation

I know I promised to move on from Barack Obama’s speech on Dems and religion from earlier this week, but there’s something that I think still bears discussion; based a couple of stories that came to my attention in the days since the speech, and another story that they brought back to mind. In particular I want to look at these hazop stories in light of Obama’s words on prayer in schools and to what degree it does or doesn’t constitute state establishment or endorsement of a religion. Specifically, I want to look at what it what it can establish in terms of the kind of environment students who don’t belong to the majority faith have to put up with.

First. what Obama said:

Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase “under God.” I didn’t. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats.

Perhaps he’s right. Not every mention of god, or every prayer uttered in public school should be considered a threat. But, even at the current level of vigilance re: the separation of church & state it can be a threat, particularly to those students who do not share the majority faith and thus opt not to participate.

In other words, whether there should be or not, there are consequences for not participating, as the following stories lay out in pretty clear detail. For some reason, amid all the ballyhoo about “persecuted” christians, these stories rarely ever make major news.

The first is one that landed in my inbox this morning, about a Jewish family forced to move because of religious hostility.

A large Delaware school district promoted Christianity so aggressively that a Jewish family felt it necessary to move to Wilmington, two hours away, because they feared retaliation for filing a lawsuit. The religion (if any) of a second family in the lawsuit is not known, because they’re suing as Jane and John Doe; they also fear retaliation. Both families are asking relief from “state-sponsored religion.”

… Among numerous specific examples in the complaint was what happened at plaintiff Samantha Dobrich’s graduation in 2004 from the district’s high school. She was the only Jewish student in her graduating class. The complaint relates that local pastor, Jerry Fike, in his invocation, followed requests for “our heavenly Father’s” guidance for the graduates with:

I also pray for one specific student, that You be with her and guide her in the path that You have for her. And we ask all these things in Jesus’ name.

… On the evening in August 2004 when the board was to announce its new policy, hundreds of people turned out for the meetng. The Dobrich family and Jane Doe felt intimidated and asked a state trooper to escort them.

The complaint recounts that the raucous crowd applauded the board’s opening prayer and then, when sixth-grader Alexander Dobrich stood up to read a statement, yelled at him: “take your yarmulke off!” His statement, read by Samantha, confided “I feel bad when kids in my class call me Jew boy.”

… A former board member suggested that Mona Dobrich might “disappear” like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the atheist whose Supreme Court case resulted in ending organized school prayer. O’Hair disappeared in 1995 and her dismembered body was found six years later.

… Classmates accused Alex Dobrich of “killing Christ” and he became fearful about wearing his yarmulke, the complaint recounts. He took it off whenever he saw a police officer, fearing that the officer might see it and pull over his mother’s car. When the family went grocery shopping, the complaint says, “Alexander would remove the pin holding his yarmulke on his head for fear that someone would grab it and rip out some of his hair.”

The Dobriches refinanced their home so that Mona and Alexander could move to Wilmington, away from a situation that had become untenable, according to the complaint; Marco stayed behind because of his job, .

That story reminded me of another one I mentioned briefly in last week’s QueerlyKos round up after reading it on Pharyngula. In fact, I mentioned it so briefly that afterwards I felt sure a lot of people probably missed the story of a student who was kicked off a high school sports team for refusing to participate in team prayer, and what happened to her family in the aftermath.

The Smalkowski case attracted national attention after Nicole Smalkowski was kicked off of the girls’ basketball team after refusing to stand in a circle with her teammates on the gymnasium floor of the Hardesty public High School and recite the “Lord’s Prayer.” After school officials learned that she and her family were Atheists, lies were created about her as grounds to take her off of the team.

When her father Chuck discovered conclusively that public school and law enforcement officials had lied to him about his 15 year old daughter, he and Nicole and her mother Nadia went to the home of principal Lloyd Buckley to attempt to discuss the matter with him. Outside of his front fence, the principal struck Chuck, who blocked the blow. Both men fell to the ground and Buckley sustained minor injuries, the provable origins of which were strikingly contrary to his under oath trial testimony. Buckley then took out misdemeanor criminal assault charges against Chuck. After Smalkowski rejected the offer to drop the charges if he and his Atheist family left the state, the charges were raised to a felony. Chuck called American Atheists for help.

About.Com’s Agnosticism/Atheism guide offers a pretty thorough summary of the affair, including a link to Chuck Smalkowski’s personal account of how virtually an entire small community turned on the family for not sharing the majority faith, nor having the decency to at least go through the motions.

Hardesty has labeled us as devil worshippers. I assure you if we do not believe in bearded white men flying in the heavens with wings we surely do not believe in a black man in the ground with horns and a pointed tail.

… Is it any wonder that with this manipulative rhetoric that teachers with students present told my daughter Nicole this is a Christian country and if you don?t like it get out! These teachers have since left Hardesty. Teachers watched as students said she was gay because she voted for Kerry, only homosexuals vote for Kerry, we are Christian we vote for Bush. They persecuted my daughter. They called her a half-breed. Made fun of northerners and Yankees. Teachers said they hated her. Having other students follow her around to catch her on the littlest infraction. No teacher ever tried to enlighten these misguided children. Instead the school encouraged more of the same. So those paid to educate our children instead used their position to persecute my daughter. Do you really think the other children benefited being use by teachers in this way? Taught to prejudge and single out those that are different. Hardesty School should be proud. It has never stopped to this day. The school board believes it can do anything. I think not.

School is for teaching not preaching. To supply our children with the tools and knowledge, not the seed of hate and divisiveness. My greatest gift to my children is that of a future of promise of a better and free tomorrow. Not hindered by the shackles of fear.

Smalkowski was, by the way, ultimately found not guilty of the assault charges trumped up against him.

These two stories put me in mind of Tempest Smith, a Wiccan girl who was driven to suicide by her classmate’s taunting and harassing her because of her religion, and whose story I blogged about a while back. The original article about Tempest’s suicide doesn’t seem to be available anymore, but this one offers all the basic details.

Denessa [Smith, Tempest’s mother] remembers the last “I love you” from Tempest, the night before the 12-year-old tied a scarf around her neck and hung herself from her bunk bed on February 20.

Tempest’s journal, found under her bed after her Feb. 20 suicide, shed light on the harassment she endured from classmates who teased her for her shy demeanor, gothic-style clothes and interest in the Wiccan religion.

… Denessa said the torment began in second grade and escalated in middle school, when Tempest recorded her harassment, memories and crushes in a journal given to her by her mother.

Tempest wrote in her last journal entry on Jan. 29, that classmates were surrounding her and singing Bible hymns, “Now people aren’t saying Jesus luvs U. They’re singing it.” In her poetry she asked “Will I ever have friends again?”

Denessa said Tempest’s interest in Wicca added to the persecution from classmates, which went uncorrected by school officials.

And that’s without even getting into the whether student’s should be protected not just from harassment based on their religious beliefs or practices, but also from harassment based on their sexual orientation (which religious conservatives argue would limit their freedom of religious speech).

I should say here, and perhaps should have said sooner, that I’m not laying out these stories in order to suggest that Obama or religious progressives would approve of what happened in any of these cases, or that the same wouldn’t want to prevent these kinds of stories from happening.

I’ll even allow that Obama may not have been calling for progressives and Dems to ease up on their vigilance regarding the separation of church and state. (He did, after all, assert that to conservative religious leaders that the separation of church and state was non-negotiable.) But to some degree backing off on issues like prayer in schools at least seems like and could even be read as a strategic retreat of sorts, and in this case one that leaves people like the Dobrich, Smalkowski, and Smith families without much cover when situations like these do arise.

If anything, following Obama’s advice means that there needs to be even more vigilance in these regards. If there’s going to be school prayer then it stands to reason it’s going to cleave pretty closely to the faith of of the overwhelming majority in the various locales where it’s practiced. (Since, as I’ve heard said, making it more “inclusive” might also be seen as watering it down to the point of irrelevance.) Even with the current level of vigilance, students and families in some places can face damaging consequences for not conforming to the majority faith. Even the suggestion of decreased vigilance or standing down on the issue probably opens the door to at least some increase in families an individuals facing consequences for religious non-conformity in their communities.

I’d have to suggest that if religion is now going to be welcomed into the public square and even into public school classrooms by both Republicans and Democrats, then there needs to increased vigilance and attention paid to the prevention of stories like those above. And it’s going to take more than just people like me doing it (because as I non-believer I’m probably and a gay an I’m probably going to be somewhat suspect).

So, I’d like to suggest that — as religion, specifically in this case christianity, takes a more prominent place in public life an— that they pay attention to stories like these and work on stopping them before they reach the point where the damage is already done, as happened in these three stories.

And I’d like to offer a bit of appropriate advice from a non-majority faith:

An’ it harm none, Do what ye will.


  1. I am forced to wonder if your non-capitlaization of Christianity (i.e., “christianity,” as opposed to your capitalization of Jewish and Wiccan) is a simple oversight or a political statement on your part.

  2. Personally, I would remove god from the pledge in public schools, and from our coins and bills. I also strongly oppose public funding of textbooks for use in religious institutions. Having said that, it should be noted that in the passage you quoted, Obama was not advocating school prayer or any backing off from the law as it presently stands. The prayer group reference is based on the theory (with which I have some reservations, but do understand) that if a school elects to open its doors to other student-led, voluntary groups, then a voluntary student-led prayer group cannot be discriminated against. Incidentally, this is the same First Amendment free speech argument that supports allowing equal access to voluntary, student-led gay-straight alliance groups.

    While I think it is worthwhile and important for individuals, the ACLU, People for the American Way, etc. to be vigilant, I also think that it is political suicide for the Dems to make my views a priority here. Why? Because the populous is not there by a long shot, and having the Dems commit political suicide only means that the religious right will have even greater influence on the Repubs and our government. If the Dems move too far to the left on this, then what we will be guaranteeing is more of the Christian Taliban that greatly influences the Repubs, Congress, and the White House today. Politics: the Art of the Compromise. It isn’t always pretty, but ignoring that reality may be worse.

  3. I think that you may be missing part of Obama’s point. He said:

    “Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats.”

    You said:

    “I’d have to suggest that if religion is now going to be welcomed into the public square and even into public school classrooms by both Republicans and Democrats, then there needs to increased vigilance and attention paid to the prevention of stories like those above.”

    A private prayer group is very different from a basketball team or a convocation. The latter are school events; the former are private associations of students, using school property. You don’t see basketball teams rooting for Bush as a team, or preachers at convocations praying for the republicans, and Obama would agree with you that the examples you cited were, to put it mildly, inappropriate.

    If you allow students to associate privately (a right allso guaranteed in the first amendment, btw) for non-religious reasons, such as political activity (as obama mentioned), then where is the problem in allowing them to do the same for religious reasons?

    Heck, recognizing the right of students to asssociate in private for religious purposes, as christians have a duty to do, would give you much more reason to exclude public religious displays.

    I guess what I’m saying is that Obama wasn’t suggesting that religion be “welcomed into the classroom”, except in the most trivial sense that school property be used for private meetings.

  4. Prayer in schools are perfectly acceptable. If it’s a private school. The fact is that there is no such thing as a non-coercive “voluntary prayer”. There is no bar on a single student praying silently in a classroom. Neither is there any bar on a group of students praying, silently or loudly, on school property, provided that the prayer is not endorsed by the school, and the prayer does not disrupt normal school business.
    What is not allowed is prayer which, in any way, implies official sanction.
    I don’t want my kid to be placed in a position of defiance, simply because he wishes not to participate in a majoritarian endorsed activity. I don’t wish that on any kid. And so long as parents feel compelled to file law-suits to protect their kids rights’, it is too soon to seek accomodation on this issue.
    It’s just another red herring to divert attention from the disaster which our government has become under conservative rule.

  5. The problem here is right-wing “Christian” Dominionists, who believe in a theocratic “Christian Nation”. They are not real Christians, they are evil people and they have hijacked much of the Christian faith. They are also influential in the GOP.

    Real Christians need to fight this in every school board in the US. We cannot let our country become a backward theocracy which practices hate against our children.

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  7. My name is Chuck Smalkowski and Nicole is my daughter. We are the family in Oklahoma with a little problem over church and state. I wrote a small piece called “Just another Salem”. it can be read thru’ the link below.
    These are the times that try mens souls Thomas Payne wrote. It was a rally cry to the bellegered troops.
    Well I do not have or need a soul, but I am human. A living being with inalienable rights given to me by the roll of the eternal dice. And as such it is a great gift not to be wasted. I have raised my children upon this belief.
    There is a dark cloud over this land. An evil is growing into a massive thunderhead and it will bring much pain and misery. Its leaders do not bare horns and pointed tails but display crosses shouting hallelujah and singing praise the lord!
    These are the times,

    Chuck smalkowski

  8. We live in a world of statistics and we also live in a world of tragedies. Throughout the years we have taken every bad thing and made it into something of great importance, when our entire history is built on “look at the positives”. I believe that history is gone in our age. The statistics on these incidences is very small. The real statistics is on our Christian community and the banning, and the God phrases, and the expulsion of christians as a whole. Listen to these readings.

    I have heard from my children that they also cannot have a bible nor can they have an American flag hanging in their locker. I have also seen school yearbooks come home in spanish and the Mexican flag hanging above an American flag in a certain school. It’s the public school system that’s lacking because of all these superficial parents who think their beliefs go before everyone elses. How extremely sad for all of us. This is just the beginning for America…because these petty mandates will be enforced at the government level, then we will all perish!

    And, although I believe there should be separation of church & state and politics and church, I do not believe that our public school system should retaliate against christian students for assembling a prayer group on school grounds, nor do I think we should exclude anyone in our public school systems. I also believe that there are independent religions that are extreme and take matters in their own hands, not God’s….muslims, jews, mormons, catholics, and christians alike.

    I would also like to say that God is God and in the infamous last words of Thomas Payne (an avid atheist)on his death bed…in anguish of a soul in despair and who suffered in great pain, cried out (and I quote), “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? I would give worlds, if I had them, if The Age of Reason had never been published. O Lord, help me! I’m burning! Help me! Stay with me! It is hell to be left alone!”

    I’ll leave you with this question, why would an atheist cry out in such pain to a God that he never believed in? In essence we’ll never know until we’re actually there.

  9. My Gracious Heavenly Father, forgive those that do not understand and forgive those that persecute us for the love of you, Lord. It’s only a matter of time before our efforts are squashed and it’s our duty to bring as many to you as we possibly we can.

    Because YOU love them, Lord, you let them choose, but eternal death is what they choose. I pray for the family that lost their daughter in atheism, but we cannot go back and save a soul that parent’s denied from the beginning of “their choice”. Although they may fight and they may scream, their daughter will not be restored to them, not even in death.

    I do pray for that family, because they still live, that they may see the tragedy in their own life story and look to you for their own transgressions.

    My heavenly Father, I pray that you change these hearts and minds so that when you descend from heaven (as I have seen in my dreams) they will not be afraid and they know that they have given their life unto you. I pray for you all, do not be among the non-believers and burn like the great atheist Thomas Payne. Do not give your lives to the world!

  10. Sheila of CO
    I’m so sorry that you’ve been taken in by Christian propaganda, especially related to Thomas Paine’s (bogus) death bed confession. Robert Ingersoll himself discovered the truth, and you could too if you would check your sources before trotting out yet another Christian myth. It shows that your question in your first reply is nothing but a lie.

    I love how you also blame the victim. Obviously an Atheist will go to hell, so why should you worry about how badly they are treated in life?

    You believe in God. I believe that your beliefs have made you morally corrupt.

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  12. I think its a matter of opinion and also, as pointed out, largely a matter of context. After studying in a Catholic missionary school with a large non-Christian student majority, we had to say the Lord’s prayer everyday. A mass was held every week which was compulsory only for the Christian students. I never think it had any impact on my philosophy or religion. I am not a Christian but didn’t feel de-meaned or brainwashed by saying the prayer. I believe in a divine guiding presence who does not conform to the tenets of any organized religion. I think it gave me and others a better understanding of a very widespread religion.
    Just because you don’t believe in a religion and its teachings should not mean you should never have to face that religion and its symbols in everyday life. Any discriminatory behavior should doubtlessly not be condoned.It should not be a part of mandatory academic teaching but I think kids are mature enough to understand teachings and ideas from a very early age these days. If they can see other religions and beliefs, maybe they would grow up to live in harmony with them. Something we desperately need in this day and age.

  13. Obama’s main point that context matters still stands, I think. It’s been said a few times already, but voluntary prayer groups are different than prayers announced over the intercom, before a game, or a graduation ceremony, which crosses the line from voluntary into coercion.

  14. Magi,

    The difference between your catholic missionary school experience and public schools is immense. The imposition of a particular religious view in the missionary school did not have the imprimatur of the government as it does in public schools. No one is arguing with the benefits of being exposed to different religious beliefs. But having the government put its stamp of approval on a particular brand of religion is theocracy. Students should not be made to feel that their religious beliefs, or lack of beliefs, makes them second class citizens who are inferior in the eyes of the government.

  15. “You believe in God. I believe that your beliefs have made you morally corrupt.”

    I loved that closing sentence, Calladus. Simply wonderful, you took the words out of my mouth.

  16. People have the right to practice religion or believe what ever they want. I think we blaming God for peoples mistakes. We not perfect , we need to respect everybody opinion and belief . If the Jews don’t believe in Jesus I don’t undestand why the “Christians” want t to force them to believe or participate in their faith, the same think for the Jewish people with want they believe.
    Now, I will like to know something, if God is not real why the whole world always said ,” Oh my God ” when something amazing is happening ever when someting bad is happenig.
    I met a co-woker that believe in the devil and he has a car accident and nothing happend to him. His car was totally lost and he said to me “Thanks God and Jesus I’m alive”. I told him “how come?, you said that you don”t beleive in God. He said, “I don’t , but my grandmom always bless me in the name of Jesus when I going out and she said that he always going to protect me when I’m out there. I told grandmom I don’t believe in him and she said but Jesus believe in you. I felt that somebody was hugging me when my car was spinning around and I have no seatbelt on and I was along in my car, if this dude was there well I want to thank him”.
    Is his not real Why the entire world is talking about him? What about he is real and we are waistig our time hating each other? We need to waste our time on living on peace and acept everybody the way that we are not matter the race, color or religion. I not in nobody side but we need to grow up and focus in things more important.When we die we wil know if is going to be a jugement day or not. Is easy to mess around with the peacefull people than the millions of criminal in our community.
    Just keep your peace ,do right out there with others and stay out of trouble.

  17. I came to this site looking for statistics to a speech project at school. I found so much more than I was looking for. These comments and sories posted have led me to further believe that this world is headed to Hell and it’s not the Christians fault. You people want your children to be stupid forever. To sheild them from any real hope by filling their heads with lies that there is no God. You gripe about the world but you make it so bad. By telling people there is no God you let them think there are no rules or directions to follow. That is why crime is so high why little girls are killing their unborn babies why families never stay together. By choosing to believe these lies you are the corupt one.

  18. Interesting report, Terrence. A friend of my daughter’s was kicked out of high school within days of him walking out of the auditorium where the school had invited a Christian speaker to speak to them about Christianity and lead them in prayer. This was four-plus years ago, so I don’t remember all the details. But I do remember being incredulous at the time, first that the school had brazenly required that students attend this event and second that the kid was expelled a month or so before the end of his senior year. And for the record, although my daughter was uncomfortable with the speaker, she kept quiet and graduated. Of course, we deal with the same things at work. I worked in company 1.5 years ago where my supervisor witnessed to me. Everyone around me was a believer. I remained quiet and noncommittal for the most part. I was contract and I certainly didn’t want to lose my job or the friendly co-operation of co-workers. I’ve lost that friendly co-operation in the past when people found out that I wasn’t a Christian.

  19. The largest percent of Americans are Christians. I thought in America the majority rules, so therefore why do Christian children have to abstain from prayer in schools just to pacify the small percentage of non-believers? America was based on the Christianity of our forefathers and we should carry out that tradition unless, heaven forbid, someday the majority comes around the be that of the atheists.

  20. I would bet my last dollar that if I were a child going to a Muslim school or any non-Christian school they would not stop their daily prayer to whomever, just because it might offend me. And I would not expect them to. It’s time we stop worrying so much about offending minorities of different ethnic groups or foreigners who come to live our country. If they want the privilege of living here then they can learn our language, salute our flag, and accept our ways, not vice-versa.