Here’s what FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in response to hasty advice in the New York Times’ Sunday column, Social Q’s:
Dear Mr. Galanes:
As founder of a state/church watchdog which has dealt with overt proselytizing in our public schools for more than 35 years, I was truly shocked by your tone deaf advice to a Michigan teacher (9/28/14) concerned about being invited to pre-school day staff prayer. More than 65 years of firm precedent has been set by the Supreme Court to protect the freedom of conscience of young, impressionable students from religious indoctrination and ritual in our secular public schools. It appears a public school principal has emailed teachers inviting them to gather in a classroom before school to pray. This teacher sought help from you: “I don’t feel articulately welcome, or comfortable that my principal and staff are holding daily religious meetings, even if students are not present.”
While it’s true, as you noted, that “teachers are free to exercise their First Amendment right to pray at school, as long as students are not present,” it’s also true that a zealous principal crosses the line if he or she schedules pre-school prayer for teachers. This takes on the appearance of a staff event, making insiders of the prayerful teachers and outsiders of others. We take countless complaints by public school teachers about Christian settings being chosen for in-service days complete with Christian prayer to open them. Our staff attorneys stay busy ending illegal prayer by coaches, at football games, at graduations, at school honors events, even pre-K classes involving children as young as 4! We also take many complaints about school boards inflicting Christian prayers on parents, the public and students who attend such functions, which sets a tone of defiance of secular education.
In a climate where commitment to the law, secularism and freedom of conscience is under constant assault, we believe your callous advice to a non-believing teacher to “attend a session . . . a few moments of quiet contemplation sounds good to me” was a slap in the face. Nothing fails like prayer — it’s preposterous to imagine a deity, if s/he existed, would be listening to the daily prayers from teachers at one public school, much less acting on such daily demands. We believe in in keeping our eyes open, heads up, getting off our knees and getting to work.