Beliefnet

AANews, a newsletter published by American Atheists, contributed to this list.

Across the nation, prayer and religious symbols are reappearing inschools, government buildings and other public venues despite concernsabout the separation of church and state.

Arkansas: Student Religious Liberty Month
In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee has declared October as "StudentReligious Liberty Month," and is distributing a letter from his officeto school districts throughout the state urging them to allow studentsto pray. The letter reportedly includes information about recent U.S.Supreme Court decisions, such as the permissibility of organizedprayer at school events like graduation ceremonies and athleticcontests. Even so, critics say that Huckabee's actions and similarencouragement from school officials could be interpreted as apro-active statement from the government which endorses prayer, andreligion over non-religion.

South Carolina: Voluntary Prayer at School Functions
General Bill 3120 permits "voluntary prayer" at school functions and makesavailable state funds and the resources of the state attorneygeneral's office if anyone files a civil suit over the matter.

Florida: Prayer Service
At Springstead High School in Florida, four ministers and two church choirs presided over a service for1,300 teachers, students and community members. The school also hasan organized moment of silence.

Oklahoma: 'God Bless America' Signs
At Wolf Creek Elementary School in Broken Arrow, principal Ron Beckwith "went out and spent $100 for a cloth banner that displays that slogan and shows and American flag," according to the publication Education Week. Despite complaints from civil libertarians, the marquee remains.District spokesman Steve Cowen said "We did have some complaints."Officials then consulted with the Oklahoma State School BoardsAssociation, which advised including the slogan as part of a largerdisplay with symbols such as "a flag, a picture of the Liberty Bell, apatriotic quote, or some other patriotic symbol."In Roxbury, N.J., School Superintendent Louis Ripatrazone ordered twoelementary schools in his district to remove "God Bless America" signsas a way of showing respect for those with different religious views.The schools then placed new slogans, including "Stand Up For America"and "Proud To Be An American" as a way of displaying solidarity withthe events of September 11. "After a strong backlash from localresidents, however, Mr. Ripatrazone relented and allowed the schoolsto restore 'God Bless America' to their signs."All of this is part of a resurgence of what Jay Sekulow, GeneralCounsel of the American Center for Law and Justice describes coyly as"a real swelling up of civic religion." Founded by televangelist PatRobertson, ACLJ has been a staunch legal advocate in cases involvingstudent religious expression. The group unsuccessfully defendedplaintiffs in Texas who argued that "student led" prayer at publichigh school football games revolved around the issue of free speechrather than coercive religious activity. The Supreme Court rejectedthe ACLJ argument, but Sekulow insists that there should be littlelegal problem with schools displaying "God Bless America" or similarmessages.Swearing To God In The Pledge Of AllegianceRecitation of the Pledge of Allegiance has also become a contentiousissue in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.Last month in Rosemont, Minnesota, for instance, a school board memberproposed that the district require recitation of the Pledge followedby a moment of silence in all classrooms. Elementary school pupils inthe 28,000-student district have observed the ritual, but middle andhigh school students were considered "too old," according to EducationWeek.The board tabled the proposal, fearing lack of appropriate noticeand discussion.Twenty-four states require the recitation of the Pledge of Allegianceby a segment of students in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court,however, outlawed mandatory recitation in the historic 1943 rulingWEST VIRGINIA STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION v. BARNETTE, noting:"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it isthat no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodoxin politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion."This case reversed an earlier decision in MINERSVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICTv. GOBITIS (1940) which upheld a statute mandating students to salutethe American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The BARNETTEcase was brought by a member of the Jehovah's Witness sect, whichchallenged the law on the basis of conscience. Interestingly, withthe onset of World War II, the U.S. Department of Justice receivedhundreds of reports in one week detailing physical attacks on sectmembers and others who, for reasons of conscience, would not salutethe flag or participate in the Pledge recitation..The flag salute and Pledge were forms of speech, said the high court,and speech could not be mandated by the State. The Pledge, though,was not in the form it is often recited today. Composed originally in1892 by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, it made no reference to adeity. In June, 1954, responding to a campaign by the Roman CatholicKnights of Columbus and the American Legion, President Eisenhowersigned a law adding the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.In doing so, he declared: "In this way we are reaffirming thetranscendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; inthis way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons whichforever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace andwar."Today, despite the ruling in BARNETTE, some states effectivelypressure youngsters to recite the Pledge, complete with its "godmodule." Most statutes also require that students who wish to opt outmust stand and be silent, or otherwise refrain from protesting or"disrupting" the activity. The constitutionality of these laws hasnot been examined by the high court, but in one 1992 case, the U.S.Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit allowed the practice, opiningthat "patriotism is an effort by the state to promote its ownsurvival, and along the way to teach those virtues that justify itssurvival. Public schools help to transmit those virtues and values."* Some civil libertarians such as Ken Jacobson of the Anti-DefamationLeague say that while constitutional violations are taking place,"this is not the moment to make these issues prominent." Others worrythat what is left of the wall of separation between church and stateis being eroding in an emergent "national security state," where theissue of foreign terrorism overshadows the loss of individual rightsat home. Attorneys may be reluctant to take unpopular cases, andcourts hesitant to allow such challenges to proceed. Public pressureand sentimentality, fueled in part by round-the-clock media coverageof the September 11 events and the new campaign against terrorism, areencouraging conformity and stifling dissent.One example is the decision earlier this week by the Madison,Wisconsin School Board to permit schools to require recitation of thePledge of Allegiance. The board had earlier ruled out the activities,with particular emphasis on complaints about the "one nation underGod" portion of the Pledge. After being inundated by more than 20,000telephone calls and e-mails -- most of them critical, according topress reports -- and hearing eight hours of impassioned testimony, theboard voted 6-1 to reverse the original decision and provide for thePledge and the national anthem. One hesitant member declared, "Idon't think the pledge is about religion, I think it is a commitmentto our democracy."

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