Breaking the “Moment of Silence”

March 24, 2012  |  permalink

In the 1948 landmark Supreme Court decision Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education of School District,. Justice Frankfurter observed that any activity that “sharpens the consciousness of religious differences” among schoolchildren “causes precisely the consequences against which the Constitution was directed when it prohibited the government common to all from becoming embroiled, however innocently, in the destructive religious conflicts of which the history of even this country records some dark pages.”

If religious radicals have their way, Frankfurter’s wise observation is to be discounted. Those radicals seek to sharpen that consciousness of religious differences among public school children wherever possible. Their aim is to undermine what is perhaps the greatest lesson the public schools have to teach: how to get along with others.

Gateways to Better Education is a Christian nationalist group that seeks to promote their religious perspective in the public schools; their legal defense comes courtesy of the Alliance Defense Fund. In its latest mailings, it points out that although the courts have disallowed school-sponsored prayer, 35 states allow for a “moment of silence” in public schools. Not content to let students pray on their own, Gateways has decided to create a “School Prayer Card” to use during that moment of silence. The plan is to have kids—or at least the right kind of kids—bring the card to school and whip it out together at the right moment.

“Imagine millions of students silently reading the prayer on our School Prayer Card this Friday morning in class (and every morning for the rest of the school year)!” they write. “The court in Rhode Island may have removed a dusty old banner that no one read, but the result will be that every morning millions of students in thirty-five states will pray the prayer that was on that banner.”

Now, it’s well-established that children are allowed to pray in school. As long as it does not disrupt the school day—and as long as the prayer comes from the students, not the school—it’s perfectly legal and acceptable. And no one will or should stop kids from bringing in their Prayer Cards, if they think that’s what they need to get through the moment of silence. But what is strictly speaking legal isn’t always what is wise. It isn’t hard to see that the intention behind the Gateways project is to get kids to do what adults have been prohibited from doing, namely, to convey the impression to public school children that there is an official or preferred religion and a correct prayer in the school. And it also isn’t hard to see that the effect, which can hardly be unintended, is to sharpen the consciousness of religious differences among school children.

The point of the card, after all, is to break the moment of silence, and to turn that minute that children might have had to reflect on matters of their own conscience into yet another opportunity to show that some are card-carrying members of one group, and others are not.

The Book
The Good News Club, by Katherine Stewart

The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children

About the Author
author Katherine Stewart Katherine Stewart has written for The New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Guardian. She lives in New York City. Contact her. More →


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