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Religion in schools: Always the norm for me

Religion in school is the norm to me. Strange as that sounds, it's just the way it is. From pre-K until first grade, I attended an Episcopal school and then from second grade through 12th grade, I attended Catholic school.

Every Wednesday, we attended Mass during school hours. I walked to the Priest during Communion, placing my finger over my lips once I got there to indicate I was not Catholic and so I was not given Communion. Some times, I felt it made me stand out too much, so I cupped my hands together, let the Father (or Msgr.) place the communion in my hands, stepped aside, and put it in my mouth as was the protocol.

Most Ash Wednesdays, at the start of the Lent season, I got ashes placed on my forehead in the sign of a cross, by the Priest. I did this because I did not want to stand out... like a plain bellied sneetch among all the star bellied sneetches. There were a few other kids who weren't Catholic at the two Catholic schools I attended, but literally, only a few. Most did like me and tried to fit in. As school age kids do.

But again, I was attending Catholic school. It was a privilege to me to be able to attend the schools I did, in spite of our family being Presbyterians. I was grateful to my parents for paying the extra money to send me and my brother and sister to Catholic school... and I was thankful to the schools for allowing non-Catholic students to attend their schools.

Mass, Communion, ashes, and everything Trinity was quite okay with me. Some times, even to this day, when someone tells me, "Peace," I have an incredible desire to respond, "And also with you."

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One in the same.

The Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven. The elementary school I attended was even named OLQH, or Our Lady Queen of Heaven. Our rival elementary was ICS, or Immaculate Conception School.

We spent an entire school day at church the day Pope John Paul I died. At some point during the day, I am pretty sure we watched Ole Yeller, the movie, on the huge projector screen at the church.

Each day in Elementary, one of the required courses we took was Religion. In high school, the course was Theology. We studied the New American Bible, and learned all things New Testament. Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the teachings of all other Apostles were subjects of our tests.

Again, it was all fine with me. And my parents. I choose to be there... and they choose for me to be there. And all was good.

Fast forward to me as a parent. I live in a rural area of Louisiana. There are no Catholic schools in the immediate vicinity where I live. My children have attended public schools. And they aren't so bad. As far as schools go. I think.

All of this leads me to what I am trying to get to. Public schools, as I've come to know them, are almost centered in religion. No, there is not a separate subject for religion at the public schools. And no, they do not have church services during school hours as I did at Catholic school.

But they do pray before school. In the library... attendance optional. If you don't go, you can keep eating breakfast in the cafeteria.

And they have "Prayer at the Pole," where students gather outside of the school before school starts and pray. Kids are encouraged to attend, but not required. The events are hosted by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, of which there is one such group per school in the parish.

At the public schools, students participate in a number of religious programs during school. Plays about the birth of Christ during Christmas season, singing songs of the birth of Christ.

And preachers visit the schools. Often. To pray with the students. Before pep rallies. Before Veteran's Day programs. Before many special events.

God and a Christian faith are mentioned in artwork posted on walls. In alma maters painted onto the walls. In banners hanging on walls.

Religion is in public schools. At least where we live. And I am willing to bet it is this way in many small-town areas of these United States of America. And in some metro area schools as well.

It is just is the way it is.

So I have to admit, I was a bit surprised when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Sabine Parish School Board on behalf of the parents of a Buddhist student, claiming their son was persecuted because of his faith and Christianity was pushed on him.

But then again, I wasn't so surprised. Caught somewhere between was and wasn't... somewhere between, "really, after all this time?" and "it was bound to happen sooner or later."

When I first moved to this parish, to take a job of editor of the parish newspaper, I recall taking notice when covering events at the school that there were prayers... there were preachers... and kids were taught to have faith in God and Jesus Christ. I took notice. But was I surprised? No, not at all.

Having studied Mass Communications in college, the First Amendment of the Constitution was read, re-read, reviewed, studied, dissected, analyzed, and digested. I do not, at any point, recall this so-called Constitutional ban on religion in schools.

And yet, the ACLU and non-believers (not at all to say they are one in the same) insist so adamantly that our country's Constitution (specifically the First Amendment) entirely prohibits the mixture of religion and state... more specifically, that it prohibits any presence of religion in schools. Or religion in any public forum for that matter.

The First Amendment, however, reads... and I quote,, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The first line creates the most contention. It involves two separate religious articles — the Establishment and the Free Exercise Clauses. It is the Establishment clause that most atheist activists tend to focus on, and according to one distinguished law professor and student of the Constitution, their assessments are generally wrong-headed.

Rather than a decry waged against any inclusion of religious faith in "the public square", Dr. John Eastman claims that this portion of the document speaks against a state-imposed faith.

“It tells us that you don’t want a national religion — a state-coerced national religion, a one-size-fits-all, everybody-has-to-join [system],” he said of the Establishment Clause, going on to highlight a bit of history. “[The Founders] were concerned that with a strong national government there would be a national religion … they wanted to allow the states a free hand to collaborate [with] religion in their important work of fostering a citizenry.”

Plainly, the Constitution did not inhibit public displays of faith. The early Republic welcomed public worship. Church services were held in the U.S. Capitol and Treasury buildings every Sunday. The imagery in many federal buildings remains unmistakably biblical.

The day after the passage of the First Amendment of the Constitution, Congress proclaimed a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.

In a 2011 article in Forbes Magazine, penned by Bill Flax and entitled The True Meaning of Separation of Church and State, Flax states, "It reflects incredible arrogance to reconfigure the Bill of Rights into prohibiting religious displays on public grounds. Hanging the Ten Commandments on the wall of a county courthouse no more mandates religion than judges displaying the banner of their favorite sports team somehow equates to Congress establishing that team as preeminent."

He continued, "Our forefathers never sought to evict the church from society. They recognized that the several states did not share uniform values. We lived and worshiped differently. The framers were a diverse bunch with wildly divergent opinions on many issues, but eliminating the very foundations of America’s heritage would have horrified them. On few issues was there more unanimity."

Back to Eastman, he called the supposed "separation of church and state" provision one that was rooted in federalism. Over the past 50 years, he charged the U.S. Supreme Court with misunderstanding the Establishment Clause to mean that religion must be removed entirely from public life. Atheist activists have seized upon this interpretation as well.

“We’re on the threshold of success,” he said, though, of reversing the trend.

As far as nativities on courthouse lawns and other similar religious imagery goes, Eastman said that communities should be allowed to express their views so long as citizens are not being coerced by the government to subscribe to specific ideologies.

I agree. It is not the presence of religion in public schools that to me is offensive. Not in any way, shape or form.

And for an area like Sabine Parish, which the Superintendent of Schools so questionably (questionably to others, not me) correctly referred to as the Bible Belt, students and teachers for the most part want religion and faith to be a part of school life. They are hardly ashamed of it. And nor should they be.

But what is happening at Negreet School (the school which is subject of the ACLU), however, does push boundaries. I do not see how any one can honestly think it doesn't.

What is happening at Negreet, and there are tidbits of proof included as part of the ACLU lawsuit, is way beyond the matter of religious faith being ever-present at the school. It is very possibly a religious persecution. It is "citizens" (students) being coerced by the "government" (school) to subscribe to specific ideologies.

The teacher in question, Rita Roark, added questions of religious faith to her science tests.

"ISN'T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" When the Buddhist student did not write in Roark's expected answer, "LORD," (but rather wrote "Buddha) she belittled him in front of the rest of the class. While studying other religions, Roark has told students that Buddhism is "stupid."

When the student's parents complained to the School Board, the head administrator suggest he change his faith or move to a school with more Asians. She recommended Many School, which is more than 20 miles away from Negreet School. The student is reportedly now attending this school.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue an order prohibiting the school district from continuing to disparage Plaintiffs' faith and to require the district to reimburse the Lanes for the cost of transporting their son to another school.

Further, however, the lawsuit also asks the court to issue an order prohibiting the school district from promoting religion in schools. That will be a tough one. And potentially far reaching, as Sabine Parish, Louisiana is hardly alone in the inclusion of religious faith in its public schools.

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