Philadephia Council Plans Public Hearing On School Prayer

The Philadelphia City Council plans to hold hearings on the matter of prayer in public schools.

The council in March approved a resolution authorizing its education committee to hold the hearings. 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.

“I’ve been asked and asked and asked to introduce it,” Blackwell told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “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 maneuver should be considered an innocuous boostering of the benefits of a spiritual life and not an attack on church-state separation.

But Americans United noted that the resolution calling for hearings asserts that “prayer can promote more virtuous living and may have a positive impact on student behavior in schools.” It goes on to say that “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.”

It’s unclear when the hearings will be held, but the proposal has already drawn criticism.

In a letter to Blackwell, Barry Morrison, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director, reminded the council member that “any governmental or school promotion or endorsement of a student’s private religious activity may be considered a violation of the Constitution.”

Added Blackwell, “Given the body of well-settled law on the issue of prayer in public schools, there is no necessity for a hearing on the matter.”

Americans United has also weighed in. On AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, Director of Communications Joe Conn urged Blackwell to back off.

“It’s up to parents, not city council members or school officials, to decide whether to encourage youngsters to pray,” Conn wrote. “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?”

Conn pointed out that in 1844, Philadelphia was torn apart by riots over government-sponsored religion in the public schools. The city’s public schools were Protestant-dominated and featured recitation of the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer, readings from the King James Version of the Bible as well as Protestant hymns.

When Catholics complained, violence erupted. Several city residents were killed or injured, and houses and church buildings were burned. The militia had to be called in to restore order.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 struck down mandatory school prayer in a case from the Philadelphia suburbs called Abington Township School District v. Schempp.

Americans United continues to monitor the situation.