"The recent shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., horrified the nation. In the wake of this tragedy, some have asserted that America could avoid similar problems in the future by interjecting religious worship and religious instruction into public schools. This is a profoundly misguided reaction.
"Public schools must serve children from many different religious and philosophical backgrounds. Mandating religious worship in our public schools will only serve to alienate some students and make them feel like outsiders. This is exactly the wrong message to send at a time like this.
"Religion holds an honored place in American society. In millions of American homes and houses of worship, parents and religious leaders instruct young people in hundreds of different traditions. Government's role is to treat all Americans equally but to otherwise stay out of sensitive and highly personal religious decisions. Requiring religious worship in public schools would violate the rights of conscience of millions of students and their parents, who, by law and by right, are responsible for this area of young people's lives.
"In the days that have followed the terrible incident in Littleton, a small but vocal minority of religious leaders have garnered national attention by promoting their policy agenda as a panacea for what ails the nation. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other Religious Right leaders have worked for years to force their narrow sectarian views into public schools, and it is discouraging and disappointing to see them exploit this recent tragedy to advance a purely political goal.
"Some Religious Right groups have taken the opportunity to demand government- sponsored prayer in public school classrooms, while others are using the event to escalate their campaign for private school vouchers. There are even some leaders who have called on Americans to abandon the public school system in the United States completely.
"Such irresponsible talk distracts our nation from the real issues. Coerced religious worship is never a good idea and will do nothing to address the serious issues many young people face today, and taxing Americans to finance religious indoctrination through vouchers is a clear violation of the Constitution and individual rights. Furthermore, shutting down public schools because of a violent attack will not stop violent attacks. We must do more to protect young people from violence, but deserting our school system isn't going to help.
"Many of these same Religious Right leaders have pointed to the Supreme Court as a villain, partially responsible for youth violence because of the Court's rulings on school prayer. It is simply false to connect Supreme Court rulings on government-sponsored prayer and violence among young people.
"As horrific as the killings in Littleton were, similar tragedies unfolded long before the Court required public schools to be neutral on religious matters. For example, in 1958, 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and 14-year-old Caril Fugate brutally killed 11 people in Montana and Wyoming. In 1951, 17-year-old Kenneth Skinner deliberately burned down an apartment building on his paper route in San Francisco killing eight people. And who can forget Charles Whitman, an Eagle Scout who grew up with organized prayer in Texas' public schools, yet climbed to the top of a school tower at the University of Texas and shot 46 people, killing 16.
"As we search for answers in the wake of the Littleton tragedy, we need strategies and solutions that unify our people, not make scapegoats of our nation's institutions. Public schools can and do promote the values all religious and philosophical systems hold in common - such as tolerance and solving interpersonal problems without violence - without promoting specific faiths or religion generally. The introduction of sectarian practices into public schools would run counter to the lofty goals of bringing students together and helping them develop ethical codes of behavior."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.