What Philadelphia Shouldn’t Forget: The City Of Brotherly Love Rioted Over Religion In Public Schools

I don’t think Blackwell’s hearing this spring is going to lead to riots, but I also don’t think we need to go down the dead-end street of government trespass into religion.

Philadelphia is home to the National Constitution Center, and it’s clear that members of the Philadelphia City Council ought to hop on down there and give our nation’s governing document a close read.

Last week, the council approved a resolution authorizing its education committee to hold hearings this spring on prayer in the city’s public schools. The move was sparked by Education Committee Chair Jannie L. Blackwell, who said she is taking up the topic at the behest of her constituents.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Blackwell said, "I've been asked and asked and asked to introduce it. We want to have the discussion so people will know young people have the right of free expression."

The newspaper reported that Blackwell said “her intention to hold hearings this spring on school prayer should be considered an innocuous boostering of the benefits of a spiritual life and not an attempt to breach the wall between church and state.”

Sorry, we’re not convinced. Governmental intrusion into matters of faith is never “innocuous.”

The resolution itself indicates that this is a government-sponsored crusade on behalf of prayer. It asserts that “prayer can promote more virtuous living and may have a positive impact on student behavior in schools” and says “encouraging students to not only pray for themselves but to pray for others can cause students to think more of their follow classmates then of themselves, to lead lives of thankfulness.”

And there’s the rub. It’s up to parents, not city council members or school officials, to decide whether to encourage youngsters to pray.

And just which prayer is the council member promoting? Prayer to Jesus? Or maybe the Hail Mary? How about Jewish prayers? Or prayers to Allah or the Goddess? Do they all promote “virtuous living” or are some more virtuous than others?

It’s gets complicated, doesn’t it? That’s why the Constitution bars government from encroachment into the sacred precincts of religion.

In addition to reading the Constitution, we would also encourage the city council to read some local history.

Back in 1844, Philadelphia was torn apart by riots over government-sponsored religion in the public schools.

As my colleague Rob Boston noted in a Liberty magazine article, the city’s public schools were Protestant-dominated and featured recitation of (the Protestant version of) the Lord's Prayer, readings from the (Protestant) King James Version of the Bible, and singing of (Protestant) hymns. When Catholic Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick objected, the school agreed to excuse Catholic students from the exercises.

Protestant extremists were outraged at this nod toward diversity, and full-scale Protestant-Catholic riots erupted. Many city residents were injured and killed, and houses and church buildings were burned. The militia had to be called in to restore order.

Believe it or not, it was over a century later before the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down Pennsylvania’s practice of opening its public school day with Bible reading. The 1963 case, Abington Township School District v. Schempp, was brought not by Catholics, but by a suburban Philadelphia Unitarian family, Ed and Sydney Schempp, on behalf of their 16-year-old son, Ellery (who remains active today on behalf of church-state separation).

I don’t think Blackwell’s hearing this spring is going to lead to riots, but I also don’t think we need to go down the dead-end street of government trespass into religion. The councilwoman’s plan for a hearing needs to be cancelled.

By the way, the Delaware Valley Americans United Chapter is having its second "Church/State Issues Symposium" on Saturday, April 9 at the National Constitution Center. AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, Baptist Joint Committee Executive Director Brent Walker and other luminaries will be speaking.

We encourage everyone to attend.

I’ll bet they’d given Blackwell and her fellow council members seats on the front row if they decided to come, too.