Teach, Don’t Preach: Our Public Schools Must Focus On Secular Education

For the record, Americans United does not advocate high school students getting pregnant out of wedlock, nor do we want them to become heroin addicts.

We point this out only because Jim Daly, president of the Religious Right group Focus on the Family, seems to believe that we want these things. More accurately, Daly is laboring under the delusion that a school district’s failure to allow a public school football coach to lead players and students in prayer will bring these things about. He is wrong, of course.

Daly made the comments on TV preacher Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” in response to a ruling from a federal appeals court declaring that Joe Kennedy, a public school football coach in Bremerton, Wash., had no constitutional right to pray on the 50-yard-line with students after games.

Americans United supported the school district in this case, and one of our attorneys, Andrew Nellis, presented arguments before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. We took these actions because we believed the rights of students were being violated. It’s settled law that public school teachers and staff may not meddle in the religious lives of students by coercing them, directly or indirectly, to take part in prayer and other forms of worship.

Daly asserted that he had been a troubled youth in high school before a coach led him to embrace evangelical Christianity. He went so far as to say that groups like Americans United “would rather see me with a heroin needle in my arm, or having a premarital affair with some girl in high school, or an out-of-wed­lock baby. I’m tired of it.”  He sees one extreme or the other as the only possible alternatives, black vs. white, with nothing in between.

Not quite. What Americans Uni­ted wants to see is respect for the Constitution in our public schools. This means that the men and women who work in those schools should not take on the added role of self-appointed evangelists. Parents, not teachers or coaches, have the right to decide what religion (if any) their children will take part in.

Lurking beneath all of this is an undercurrent of incredible hypo­crisy. Daly and those who think like him want Kennedy to have the right to impose conservative Christianity on students. Yet they would be the first to cry foul if a teacher tried to indoctrinate students into humanism, non-Christian faiths or even liberal Christianity.

The Religious Right wants special treatment for its version of faith in our public schools. It can never have that. The schools must serve all young­sters, and they do that best by focusing on secular education. Children’s religious or moral upbringing is best left in the hands of their parents.

The appeals court was right to back the school and curb Kennedy’s behavior. AU is pleased to have been able to assist.