E-mailed ‘Prayer’ full of mistakes about laws

Sunday, January 30, 2000

A simple click of the mouse is all it takes these days to spread false and misleading information to countless people everywhere. Welcome to the Internet revolution.

It's hard not to be somewhat cynical about new technology when your e-mail is flooded with wildly inaccurate messages about religion and values in public schools.

The latest missive to arrive over the information superhighway may be entitled “The New School Prayer,” but it's actually a frontal attack on the “godless and immoral” public education system.

Here are some of the biggest myths in the “prayer,” followed by the facts:

Myth: “Now I sit me down in school where praying is against the rule … And anytime my head I bow becomes a federal matter now … The law is specific, the law is precise. Prayers spoken aloud are a serious vice.”

Fact: Every day in thousands of public schools students say grace aloud before meals, gather around the flagpole to pray before school, meet with classmates between classes to pray or share their faith, and pray at high-school religious clubs. As long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in school, as the popular saying has it. The law is indeed precise: Students have the right to pray in public schools alone or in groups, as long as the activity isn't disruptive and doesn't infringe on the rights of others.

Myth: “They've outlawed guns; but FIRST the Bible. To quote the Good Book makes me liable.”

Fact: It's true that public schools have a “zero tolerance” policy with regard to weapons in school (and surely that's a good thing). But students are free to bring their Bibles or other scriptures to school. They're also free to pray, read their scriptures, discuss their faith and invite others to join their particular religious group. In class discussions, students also have the right to express their religious views (including quoting the Bible) as long as doing so is relevant to the subject under consideration.

Myth: “It's 'inappropriate' to teach right from wrong. We're taught that such 'judgments' do not belong.”

Fact: A few misguided educators may have held this view 25 years ago, but today character education is one of the fastest growing movements in public education. It's mandated in many states and is already in place in thousands of school districts. Character education is all about teaching the core moral values widely held in the community, values such as honesty, respect, caring and responsibility. For most teachers and parents, teaching “right from wrong” is not only highly “appropriate” — it's a core mission of our schools.

Are there some schools that don't know the law concerning religion in schools or that haven't gotten the message about character education? Sure. A small number of districts still have practices that impose religion on kids, and some districts still do things that send a hostile message to religious people. But most educators are now aware that both of these approaches to religion are unjust and unconstitutional.

Just to make sure that everyone gets the message, this month the U.S. Department of Education is sending a religious-liberty packet to every public school in the nation. The fact that a broad range of religious and educational groups endorses these guidelines should help end any remaining confusion about what is and isn't permissible in public schools.

All of these e-mails perpetuating myths about public education contribute to mistrust and division in our communities — and undermine the educational mission of our schools.

There's plenty of room for disagreement about public education without creating false arguments. But even when our differences are deep, we should strive to be accurate and fair. And we should commit ourselves to treat one another with civility and respect.

So if you receive this e-mail “prayer” — or something like it — be sure to read it with a skeptical and critical eye. This message ends not with “amen” but with “pass it on.” Please don't.