Praying For Sanity.

AuthorBoston, Rob

Religious Right Groups Spread A Lot Of Misinformation About School Prayer. Here Is The Truth.

Few church-state issues are as fraught with misinformation, distortions and outright lies as the role of religion and prayer in America's public schools.

Americans United recently secured victories in two important school prayer cases. In Bossier Parish, La., a school district agreed to end a variety of unconstitutional practices to settle a lawsuit AU had brought on behalf of local families. (See "Victory In Bossier!," page 6.) In Bremerton, Wash., a high school football coach was told he could not pray with students. The U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear his appeal. Americans United filed a brief on behalf of the school district and helped argue the case before a federal appeals court. (See "Unsuccessful End Run," page 9.)

In light of these recent developments, it's a good time to debunk some common myths about the role of prayer, Bible reading and religion in public schools. Although often circulated by Religious Right groups, these assertions either aren't true or fail to tell the whole story.

We've gathered 10 of them here, with reasons why they're wrong.

We had prayer in schools for 200 years, and no one complained until the 1960s. There are a couple of problems with this statement. For starters, public education in the United States didn't really begin to take off until the latter half of the 19th century. That's when states began to fund public schools (often called "common schools" then) and pass laws mandating that children be educated.

Some states had laws requiring public schools to begin the day with a prayer and/or Bible reading, but others did not. Regardless, the practice was controversial from the start. Roman Catholics often complained because the prayers recited were Protestant and the Bible used for readings was the King James Version. Some parents filed lawsuits in state courts against these coercive religious practices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rulings that resulted were a mixed bag. Courts in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Nebraska invalidated the practices, but courts in Iowa, Massachusetts and Kentucky upheld them.

Far from no one complaining, the issue of religion in public schools was so controversial that it sometimes sparked outbreaks of violence. In the 19th century, riots and other forms of violence erupted in New York, Pennsylvania and Maine over the issue of religion in public schools.

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