Opt-out required for school prayers? Teacher fired for 2nd time

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.

Antievolution bill proposed for Missouri schools

Robert Wayne Cooper, a Republican member of the Missouri House of Representatives, has proposed a bill that would require school administrators to “assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies.”

What scientific controversies, you may ask? According to the bill, this would include “the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution.”

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization promoting the teaching of evolution in schools, reports on this bill in an article which also gives some background into previous attempts to attack evolution in Missouri. The frustrating thing is that lawmakers are getting craftier in wording such bills. On the surface, the current bill doesn’t sound that bad. According to the proposed legislation,

Teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution.

Helping students to apply critical thinking in their learning is normally a laudable goal. But what purpose could Rep. Cooper have in mind by singling out evolution in his bill besides a veiled attempt to support the teaching of intelligent design / biblical creationism as an alternative to evolution? Especially in light of his previous efforts to legistlate in the matter, including a 2004 bill which would have mandated “equal time” for evolution and intelligent design, according to the NCSE article. That bill also stipulated that:

Willful neglect of any elementary or secondary school superintendent, principal, or teacher to observe and carry out the requirements of this section shall be cause for termination of his or her contract.

I’m not the first to point out the irony that attempts to slip creationism into the classroom have been “evolving”, but it is both frustrating and worrisome that some government officials are still trying to sneak religion into our classrooms.