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Teachers Say Church-State Separation a Necessity in Diverse Schools

July 4, 1995

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ David O’Connell, whose students practice ``a whole lot of different religions,″ says he’s offended by critics who call teachers godless, secular humanists opposed to school prayer.

``I’m a Christian,″ the longtime teacher and counselor said Tuesday. ``I pray in school on my own time, when I need it. I just don’t push it on other people.″

O’Connell and other members of the National Education Association, the nation’s biggest teachers union, said they worry that recent Supreme Court actions allowing student-led prayer at graduations could erode church-state separation.

In his suburban Philadelphia middle school, with youngsters from 54 countries observing ``a whole lot of different religions,″ the separation is a necessity, O’Connell said.

``We have Muslim kids who want to pray five times a day in our school. We have Christian kids, Jewish kids, Asian kids. If we have a student-led prayer at a graduation, whose prayer is it going to be?″ asked O’Connell, an educator at the Beverly Hills Middle School in Upper Darby, Pa.

But while they worry about high-profile arguments over school prayer, many teachers here said struggles over religion haven’t arrived at their schools.

``There’s a lot of rhetoric right now,″ said Annabella Lastowski, who teaches sixth grade social studies in Swiftwater, Pa. ``But when you get down to it, most people feel pretty comfortable with the way things are.″

Lastowski, a Catholic, uses the Bible as a historical text when she teaches ancient history to her sixth-graders. ``It’s part of the historical record. You can’t ignore it. And I don’t get complaints from parents, either the religious or the non-religious ones.″

Joyce Arceneaux, a choir teacher in Natchez, Miss., said her students sing sacred songs during state music contests, ``because it’s part of the musical literature. It’s not sung as worship.″

But in a state where ``both parents and teachers are strongly religious,″ controversies have arisen over students’ desire to lead prayers over intercoms during school hours, Arceneaux said.

And she worries that a recent Supreme Court decision on graduation prayer will add fire to those controversies.

The court on June 26 lifted a ban on student-led graduation prayers in nine Western states, but skirted the broader school-prayer issue that officials said had sparked ″religious warfare″ in public schools nationwide.

Although not a precedent-setting ruling on such prayers, the court’s action in an Idaho case was a victory for school-prayer supporters. But confusion still reigns over just what the Constitution allows.

``This is something we’re just going to have to wait and see how it shakes out,″ Arceneaux said.

In recent months, some religious and civil liberties groups _ hoping to head off future lawsuits _ have published guides clarifying laws on prayer and schools. Several teachers called the advice helpful.

Generally, a student can pray in school if the prayer doesn’t interfere with lessons. And religious groups have equal right to after-hours use of school buildings.

But teachers and other school officials cannot lead prayers during school hours because that is considered state sponsorship.

However Christian groups, like Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo., contend teachers often are prohibited from expressing their religious feelings during non-working hours.

Many times, teachers also fear school officials will censure them if they answer students’ questions about their personal religious beliefs, said Linda Page, a former public school teacher in California and spokeswoman for Focus on the Family.

``This is a big concern for our teachers,″ Page said.

Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition also cite cases where school officials forbade students from drawing religious symbols during school art assignments, or from praying quietly on their own.

The Christian Coalition says a constitutional amendment is needed to ensure Americans, including teachers and schoolchildren, receive their guaranteed right to free speech.

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