2016-06-30

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

Across the nation, prayer and religious symbols are reappearing in schools, government buildings and other public venues despite concerns about the separation of church and state.

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

South Carolina: Voluntary Prayer at School Functions
General Bill 3120 permits "voluntary prayer" at school functions and makes available state funds and the resources of the state attorney general'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 for 1,300 teachers, students and community members. The school also has an 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 Boards Association, which advised including the slogan as part of a larger display with symbols such as "a flag, a picture of the Liberty Bell, a patriotic quote, or some other patriotic symbol." In Roxbury, N.J., School Superintendent Louis Ripatrazone ordered two elementary schools in his district to remove "God Bless America" signs as 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 with the events of September 11. "After a strong backlash from local residents, however, Mr. Ripatrazone relented and allowed the schools to restore 'God Bless America' to their signs." All of this is part of a resurgence of what Jay Sekulow, General Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice describes coyly as "a real swelling up of civic religion." Founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, ACLJ has been a staunch legal advocate in cases involving

student religious expression. The group unsuccessfully defended plaintiffs in Texas who argued that "student led" prayer at public high school football games revolved around the issue of free speech rather than coercive religious activity. The Supreme Court rejected the ACLJ argument, but Sekulow insists that there should be little legal problem with schools displaying "God Bless America" or similar messages. Swearing To God In The Pledge Of Allegiance Recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance has also become a contentious issue in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Last month in Rosemont, Minnesota, for instance, a school board member proposed that the district require recitation of the Pledge followed by a moment of silence in all classrooms. Elementary school pupils in the 28,000-student district have observed the ritual, but middle and high school students were considered "too old," according to Education Week. The board tabled the proposal, fearing lack of appropriate notice and discussion. Twenty-four states require the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by a segment of students in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, outlawed mandatory recitation in the historic 1943 ruling WEST VIRGINIA STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION v. BARNETTE, noting: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion."
This case reversed an earlier decision in MINERSVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT v. GOBITIS (1940) which upheld a statute mandating students to salute the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The BARNETTE case was brought by a member of the Jehovah's Witness sect, which challenged the law on the basis of conscience. Interestingly, with the onset of World War II, the U.S. Department of Justice received hundreds of reports in one week detailing physical attacks on sect members and others who, for reasons of conscience, would not salute the 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 in 1892 by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, it made no reference to a deity. In June, 1954, responding to a campaign by the Roman Catholic Knights of Columbus and the American Legion, President Eisenhower signed a law adding the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. In doing so, he declared: "In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war." Today, despite the ruling in BARNETTE, some states effectively pressure youngsters to recite the Pledge, complete with its "god
module." Most statutes also require that students who wish to opt out must stand and be silent, or otherwise refrain from protesting or "disrupting" the activity. The constitutionality of these laws has not been examined by the high court, but in one 1992 case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit allowed the practice, opining that "patriotism is an effort by the state to promote its own survival, and along the way to teach those virtues that justify its survival. Public schools help to transmit those virtues and values." * Some civil libertarians such as Ken Jacobson of the Anti-Defamation League say that while constitutional violations are taking place, "this is not the moment to make these issues prominent." Others worry that what is left of the wall of separation between church and state is being eroding in an emergent "national security state," where the issue of foreign terrorism overshadows the loss of individual rights at home. Attorneys may be reluctant to take unpopular cases, and courts hesitant to allow such challenges to proceed. Public pressure and sentimentality, fueled in part by round-the-clock media coverage of the September 11 events and the new campaign against terrorism, are encouraging 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 the Pledge of Allegiance. The board had earlier ruled out the activities, with particular emphasis on complaints about the "one nation under God" portion of the Pledge. After being inundated by more than 20,000 telephone calls and e-mails -- most of them critical, according to press reports -- and hearing eight hours of impassioned testimony, the board voted 6-1 to reverse the original decision and provide for the Pledge and the national anthem. One hesitant member declared, "I don't think the pledge is about religion, I think it is a commitment to our democracy."

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