I often think of religion as a drug. It pacifies an otherwise worrisome crowd. And, let’s face it, some people cling to it like heroin, looking everywhere for their next dose, or word, carrying a Bible everywhere they go and eager to talk about the ideas found within.
We had recently moved back to Michigan. I went from being in a large, urban area on the East Coast, to a very small, rural town in Northern Michigan. So I was experiencing quite a bit of culture shock. At this time, I met a young man in my music theory class, John. John was very involved in his church. He was a part of a youth group, and he was a part of a student prayer group at our school. This really blew me away. Prayer at school? What about separation of church and state? Why can’t he pray at home and why does he need a group to pray with?
I didn’t like this. I felt like my secular school was violating laws that protected my own free-thinking by allowing these groups to exist. John claimed that these groups were not a violation of church and state laws because they were student founded and student led. Even though he was right about the law, I disagreed then, and I disagree now.
First, teachers and staff can in no way perpetuate their own religious thinking in a public school setting. This rule is in place for a number of reasons. One, teachers are very influential and students often look to teachers for new ideas and guidance. A teacher can inadvertently guide a student to a new religious thought simply by talking about their religious ideas. This could in turn undermine a parent’s religious teachings. Now I’m not against opening up students’ minds to new ideas, but you have to wonder at what point does it become a simple teaching of the facts to an attempt at indoctrination? Everyone draws the line on a different point on the continuum in this matter, so I think it’s best that teachers keep their religious views to themselves while in school, especially in a k-12 setting.
Second, student groups in public schools need a teacher or staff person to head the group. This is mostly for supervision and guidance. So this goes back to my first point: teachers and staff should not talk about their religious ideas at school. So supervising a prayer group would make public your religious views, thereby creating influence on the student body.
Lastly, when you’re a teenager, one of the most powerful influences in your life is peer-pressure. Nothing hurts more than your peers at school outing you because you don’t dress a certain way, listen to the most popular kind of music, or subscribe to a popular form of religion. Religious groups in public schools only serve to popularize that religious sect. Because of this, it’s harder for students to resist their peers to join the group even if they don’t believe. Teenagers will use peer-pressure in all its forms too, including threats if one does not conform.
But I was the minority, and even though I spoke to John about my feelings, I was afraid to talk to anyone else, especially of anyone of authority at the school about it. Part of the reason why I didn’t complain about it is because it really did seem like I was the only one who wasn’t a Christian. My music theory teacher played Beatles and Eagles records backwards for us in order to open our eyes to the subliminal messages of the Devil. Yep. We learned that the Devil hides in rock music at my public high school. My parents only half listened to my complaints and told me to let it go because nobody was hurting me. So, I had no support from home.
Even though John and my music theory teacher had no problems bringing religion into the school, I was lucky in that I never felt physically threatened which I am thankful for. But I felt that my ideas and MY rights weren’t valued, and I was never asked to form an Atheist group as an alternative to prayer groups in school, something I wish I had the bravery to do back then.