The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a strong letter of complaint to the Philadelphia City Council after it unanimously passed a resolution March 10 “inappropriately meddling” with the prayer practices of public school students.
The resolution by council member Jannie Blackwell, calls for the council’s Committee on Education to hold hearings on prayer in Philadelphia Public Schools:
Whereas, prayer can promote more virtuous living and may have a positive impact on student behavior in schools; and
Whereas, encouraging students to not only pray for themselves but to pray for others can cause students to think more of their follow classmates then of themselves, to lead lives of thankfulness; and
Whereas, exercising compassion and understanding when engaging with other faith communities is important to achieve harmony and right relationships with others including students, teachers, parents, school administration and community leaders; and
Whereas, we support students who have an interest in their faith; and
Whereas, we encourage all students to use their faith in their daily living and when necessary to keep a positive attitude and give their best in school to ensure a bright future.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, in a March 15 letter on behalf of the Foundation’s 16,500 members, including 550 in Pennsylvania and a Philadelphia chapter, called the measure “a shamelessly overt attempt by a city government to promote prayer and religion to public school students. Nonbelievers take umbrage at Blackwell’s unfactual assertion that religious students are ‘more virtuous,’ ” Gaylor wrote.
“A city government may not play favorites based on citizen faith or lack thereof, or take sides on matters which must be left to individual conscience.
“It is absolutely beyond the purview of any government body or official to encourage ‘students to not only pray for themselves but to pray for others’ and to say such students ‘think more of their fellow classmates’ and ‘lead lives of thankfulness,’ much less to ‘encourage all students to use their faith in their daily living. All students are not religious. The Philadelphia City Council is offending large numbers of young people and their parents with such inappropriate pronouncements.”
Gaylor said Philadelphia history “so graphically shows the danger of mingling government and religion. In fact, Philadelphia appears to hold the unenviable record of being the only U.S. city where people have even died because of inappropriate religion in its public schools!” She noted the “prayer riots” of 1844 in which Protestants and Catholics took up arms against each other, with at least 30 people killed, after Catholic Bishop Francis Kenrick petitioned the School Board to let Catholic children read the Catholic bible.
She cited a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision against prayer and religion in public schools that originated in the Philadelphia area. In Abington Township School District v. Schempp in 1963, the court overturned a Pennsylvania law that mandated bible reading and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
“That case was bravely fought by the Schempp family,” Gaylor noted. “Ellery Schempp, now a Lifetime Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, was disciplined as a high school student when he attempted to protest the unconstitutional actions of his school district. Every morning as pupils attended their home rooms, religious exercises were broadcast into each room in the school via the PA system, with select students reading 10 verses of the bible, followed by recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, not only over the PA system but by students in the various classrooms, who were asked to stand and join in repeating the prayer in unison. The Supreme Court, in declaring such actions unconstitutional, sagely noted:
“The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.”
Gaylor wrote: “We question why a City Council facing an unprecedented economic crisis — high unemployment and joblessness, foreclosures and citizens in desperate need of practical benefits — would misdirect precious time and resources in a diversionary and divisive attack upon respect for secular principles in Philadelphia Public Schools?
“What can be the intent and meaning of the City Council calling for ‘hearings on prayer in Philadelphia public schools’ if not to impermissibly advance religion, inflame passions and interfere with students’ First Amendment right to believe, or disbelieve, as they desire?”
FFRF called on the council to rescind its unlawful resolution.
Council President Anna Verna
Members of the City Council
City Hall, Room 405
Philadelphia PA 19107-32
School Reform Commission (School Board)
440 North Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19130