It is against both Tennessee and U.S. law to lead public school students in prayer. But some people just won’t stop breaking the law and trying to find ways around it. Should students have to opt-out in order to be spared from teacher-led prayers?
According to WLBT news, “A Franklin County High School teacher was fired on Tuesday for leading her students in prayer in the classroom,” At first this sounds like good news, because the school board did not renew her contract because of her illegally leading prayer in school. But the news is not entirely good.
Apparently, teacher Alice Hawley had been fired “over 15 years ago”…for doing the same thing: leading prayers in class. “A few years later” she was asked back. So at least 15 years ago, she was let go because she was leading students in prayer. Then she was asked back, let’s say 10 years ago as a conservative estimate since we’re not given exact figures. That means she very well may have been leading class prayers for the past 10 years until a student or parent complained, or someone outside the school found out.
The principal was allegedly aware of what the teacher was doing, at least according to one student. “And sometimes our principle [sic: principal] comes and he’ll bow his head and he’ll pray with us.” If the principal was coming in and praying, he obviously was aware of the practice at some point before the teacher was let go; and since he actively participated in the prayers he may very well also be breaking the law, depending on the circumstances.
But in addition to subjecting some students who may be of different religious faiths or no faith at all to the teacher’s prayers, it’s the teacher’s defense that particularly irks me. One of her students said her policy was that if a student objected to the teacher praying:
“She said you can leave a letter an anonymous email, or just tell her raise your hand in class,”
So apparently, if the student is presenting the situation accurately, this teacher thinks that it’s okay if she imposes religious prayer upon her students, who are minors, so long as she tells them they can raise their hand to complain or leave an anonymous letter if they object. What she apparently doesn’t get is that she is in a position of authority, and that as a public school teacher, she is also acting as a representative of the government. She is not allowed to advocate religion. For her to say that the default is prayer and that you have to complain to stop it, when most or all of your other classmates support the prayer, is clearly a violation and an undue burden to put on a minor.
The video shows several students with shirts or writing on their arms saying “I broke the rule, I prayed in school” in support of their now-fired teacher and her prayers. What happens if a kid does not wear such a shirt, or does not actively support their teacher? Will they be singled out overtly or subtly and treated differently?
Teachers and other people hired by the state or federal government should not be forcing religion on anyone, especially not children. Children should not be forced to protest in order for the law to be upheld; the adults should be doing this on their own. I am glad the teacher got fired, but appalled that she was rehired in the first place, that this was the second time she had to be fired for the same thing, that the principal appears to have known about such prayers and even participated in them, and that her leaving has now further brought students into the fray. Hopefully whoever is hired to replace Hawley will start off their tenure by setting a good example for their students: respect for both students’ rights and the law by not leading classes in prayer.