It is in this context that we must consider whether typical public school teachers—particularly teachers at the lower level—can truly be trusted to be objective about “teaching” religion. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is continually contacted by students and parents who encounter teachers and principals who view their captive audience of students as a ripe mission field for recruitment. We handle more than 2,000 complaints a year by members of the public concerned about violations of the separation between church and state, and the vast majority of these concern violations in our public schools. We have to closely monitor our public schools to comply with more than 60 years of clear precedent barring prayer and devotional instruction in our public schools. We’ve recently had to complain in more than one state about kindergarteners being forced to pray by their teachers!
This year marks the 65th anniversary of the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, barring religious instruction in our public schools. Jim McCollum was the only child in his elementary school not participating in religious classes. He was persecuted, and so was his family, for pointing out that it’s up to parents to instruct their children in religious beliefs. It’s also the 50th anniversary of Abington v. Schempp, barring bible-reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The plaintiffs in both these cases became pariahs for speaking out against religion in their public schools. Unfortunately, even today, students who stick up for separation of church and state still often become outcasts, as demonstrated by the mistreatment of high school student Jessica Ahlquist last year. After she won a federal ruling in Rhode Island removing a prayer banner from her public high school, Jessica at one point had to be accompanied to school by police escort. She retreated to private tutoring after repeated and vicious threats of violence and retribution. Religion in our public schools creates divisiveness, and awareness of religious differences often builds walls between students.