Last week, on Sept. 11, the entire faculty and students (over 700 people) of Yosemite High School gathered for a school-scheduled, mandatory assembly inside Yosemite High School’s Badger Stadium to remember the 9/11 terrorist attacks in a “Patriot Day Memorial,” a community event sponsored by Sierra Tel.
Retired Navy Chaplain and Roman Catholic priest Richard Lamontagne gave both a prayer and a benediction. This event is not unprecedented. Last year’s Patriot’s Day repeated the mandatory school assembly and Lamontage’s prayer and benediction.
Why is this important? Because on both occasions, this event was unconstitutional and unlawful, as determined by numerous past Supreme Court decisions. This was acknowledged by Yosemite High School Principal Regina Carr and by Yosemite Unified School District Superintendent Cecelia Greenberg in an email to parents.
It is gratifying to see this quick action, and both seem to be taking steps to ensure this unconstitutional promotion of religion doesn’t happen again.
Secular organizations such as the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics (CVAAS) support the right of any student to pray in school, carry and read their religious books, or worship as they need, providing the school agrees it is not disruptive to the educational mission. However, everything changes when public schools act in ways that endorse religion.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
In simple terms, when it comes to religion Congress shall not play favorites.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that all citizens of every state have rights equal to all other citizens, including equal justice under the law. Under the Due Process portion of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Bill of Rights applies to state and local governments.
Simply stated, under due process, neither states nor local governments shall play favorites in regard to religion. To be clear, Yosemite High School is administered by state and district governments.
CVAAS is monitoring social media response to this event. It is interesting that those who agree with school prayer seem to agree because school prayer aligns with their personal beliefs. Those who tolerate school prayer have said that students, “Don’t have to listen,” and, “Don’t have to participate.”
Such viewpoints denigrate both religious and nonreligious beliefs. Secular organizations are of course concerned about First Amendment violations. However, minority religions and many mainstream religious organizations are also extremely concerned.
For example, the Southern Baptist Convention created a 1947 resolution that condemned state involvement in religion, especially in schools. SBC did this because they believed all faiths and creeds should be treated alike, without government entanglement.
The Supreme Court has identified these First Amendment violations and ruled that schools may not coerce or force students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and has also ruled that school prayers are the promotion of one religion over others.
Official school prayer was ruled to be a violation even if the prayer is vaguely worded, if the students are not coerced to participate, or if that prayer is delivered by someone who is neither faculty nor student.
Take a moment to consider:
▪ Do you think your child must listen to prayer from a religion that marginalizes your own religion?
▪ Would you support school prayer to a deity you do not worship?
▪ Would you want your children to be required to hide their religious beliefs in an environment that celebrates one religion over all others?
▪ Are you part of a majority religion and not bothered that children in minority religions must “pretend belief” to avoid bullying and harassment?
Public schools should not be in the business of sorting children by religious beliefs. No child should be forced to choose between acting or not acting on a religious belief in front of their peers. No child should have to hid their religious beliefs while being required to endure religious indoctrination in the form of an invocation.
Public schools must avoid religion entirely so that you may guide your child’s religious upbringing without religious interference.
Mark Boyd is president of The Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skepticsm, is a nonprofit organized to educate and serve our community while promoting rational inquiry, positive secular philosophy and the First Amendment protection from religious entanglement in our government. Contact him online or on Facebook at cvaas.org.