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Shame on Philadelphia's City Council

Board resolution pushes prayer in public schools

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a strong letter of complaint to officials in Philadelphia after the City Council unanimously passed a resolution March 10 that violates the constitutional boundary between state and church.

The resolution, introduced by council member Jannie Blackwell, calls for the council's Committee on Education to hold hearings on prayer in Philadelphia Public Schools. It includes these statements:

  • 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.[OFF]

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, in a March 15 letter on behalf of the Foundation's 16,200 members, including 550 in Pennsylvania, 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," Gaylor said.

"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 [emphasis added]. All students are not religious. The Philadelphia City Council is offending large numbers of young people and their parents with such inappropriate pronouncements."

Gaylor also noted some Philadelphia history, 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.

"What other lesson is needed to show that religion has no place in Philadelphia Public Schools?" Gaylor asked.

She also 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. 

"The court continues in a series of strong decisions to shoot down every attempt by government or outside influences to influence students to pray," Gaylor said, also citing McCollum v. Board of Education, Engel v. Vitale, Stone v. Graham, Wallace v. Jaffree, Lee v. Weisman, and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.

Students are already free "to pray alone" in school without any resolution or encouragement by the council or school, Gaylor said. "And the federal Equal Access Act already permits bible clubs and devotional student clubs to meet in public schools that allow nonacademic student clubs. But the rest of this resolution written by Jannie L. Blackwell clearly seeks to influence and reward public school students who pray vocally and in groups and otherwise parade piety in front of other students, in a manner that the Jesus of the New Testament so expressly condemned as false and hypocritical (Matthew 6:5-6).

"Already the Philadelphia school day includes 'one minute of silent meditation.' Already the Philadelphia school day opens with the religious Pledge of Allegiance, a pledge which Congress tampered with in 1954, divisively inserting the words 'under God' in a formerly secular oath. The national Freedom From Religion Foundation in its 33 years of existence has received countless complaints from students who have been reprimanded, shunned or disciplined for opting out of participation in a pledge which distastefully links piety to patriotism," Gaylor said.

"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.

Contact information:

Anna C. Verna, City Council President
Members of the City Council
City Hall, Room 405
Philadelphia PA 19107-32
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School Reform Commission (School Board)
440 North Broad Street
Suite 101
Philadelphia, PA 19130
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