The No God In School Rule

First Communion Day.  That's me in the back row, at the priest's right elbow.

Before I even knew what a civil right was, I had mine violated!  Of course, I didn't mean to create a fuss when I left the house that morning in 1960-something.  I only intended to do what seemed the logical thing.  After all, I reasoned, I wanted to do well in school, so why not take along a little help.  I can only imagine how my poor mother felt, when she found me heading off to school, clutching my ten inch statue of the Blessed Mother in one hand, and my Donna Parker lunchbox in the other.

On my way out the door, Mother snatched the pastel statuette from my hand, insisting that it was an inappropriate thing to take on a bus and into a classroom.  Stopping dead in my tracks, I begged her to return it, offering to wrap it in toilet paper for safekeeping.  But, that wasn't what Mother was worried about.

Kids brought all sort of things to school, and usually teacher allowed them, as long as they didn't create a distraction.  I was sure my beautiful, little, blond, and blue-eyed Mary at prayer, was no distraction.  I'd keep her inside my desk if asked to, where nobody else would see her.

Mother was mad, and a little sad at the same time.  I realized I was skating on thin ice, for I wasn't supposed to talk back to my parents, let alone argue my point.  Finally, with an impatient expression, she explained in terms a grade schooler might understand, that I attended a public school, and public schools didn't allow religious symbols and statues. The Virgin Mary, was most certainly a religious symbol, and would only cause trouble.

Mary returned to the desk in my bedroom, and I caught my bus, still wondering what God had done to get thrown out of school.

Later, when Mom had more time, she elaborated on her explanation, saying that as Americans, we had to be sensitive to other people's beliefs, and in school, there may be students whose parents don't believe in God.  A statue of Mary, the Mother of God, sitting atop a school desk, might be offensive to those students, and their parents.  I wasn't sure at the time, that my Irish Catholic mother approved of the no God in school rule but, she wasn't one to argue with the government.

Mom gave me something to think about that I'd never thought about before.  From then on, I wondered which kids had parents that didn't believe in God.  Of course, I was afraid to ask, remembering what Mother said about being sensitive to the feelings of others.  Then, one day it occurred to me, that maybe we were the odd ones.  Maybe most people didn't believe in God, and Jesus, and Mary, and the saints.  That thought made me sick to my stomach.  I didn't want to go through life being the oddball.

Because we moved so much, I was exposed to, and made friends with, people of many ethnicities and faith traditions.  When we moved to a community outside of New York City, our vacation days doubled, because school was canceled on Jewish holidays.  My best friend was Jewish, and I loved being invited to her home to share in their holiday traditions.  I accompanied her to temple on a few occasions, and came to understand that we worshipped the same God, but in slightly different manners.

It was 1970-something, and we were in gym class when the teacher announced we'd be learning a Jewish folk dance called the hora.  I knew it from the bas and bar mitzvahs I'd attended, and loved it.  We formed our circles, joined hands, and the old world strains of Hava Nagila, (let us rejoice, in Hebrew) flooded the gymnasium.  Forward, and back and right, right, right. . . we danced, and laughed, and danced some more.

At any moment I expected the seated honoree to be swept up into the middle of the circle, and elevated above the exuberant dancers.  But, there was no bar mitzvah boy.  We were in school.

It was then, that I remembered my statue, and my mother's admonishment about religion and school.  I supposed the ban on God didn't apply to gym class.

That same year, a dispute broke out in homeroom because a student refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance.  He never moved a muscle, didn't utter a word, and never looked up at the flag.  He just sat there, slouched in his chair, staring down at his desk.  Indignant, one of the bolder boys demanded to know why. Our teacher busied himself at his desk for a few moments, before addressing the question.

Finally, in a quiet voice, he explained that Americans are sensitive to those whose religious beliefs prohibit them from signing or declaring an oath of allegiance.  Nobody said a word.  I remember staring in disbelief as my teacher spoke, and wondered if he was a hippie.  After all, he did have a beard and a pony tail.

When we studied the founding of the United States, and the Bill of Rights, I was taught that people came to our country seeking the freedom to worship openly, the religion of their choice, without fear of ridicule and persecution.  The first Amendment was supposed to protect the citizenry from the government, or anyone else that interfered in the free exercise of an individual's beliefs.
I was still confused about the statue, for I certainly wasn't interfering with anyone's religious freedom by saying a prayer at my desk, and I sincerely doubt that our founding fathers would have approved of intimidating little girls out of asking for God's intercession in the classroom.

The incident with the statue stayed with me my entire life, and impacted my decision to send my daughters to a Catholic school, where they would be free to whisper a prayer, or bless themselves before an exam, without fear of ridicule or expulsion.  To this day, I admire athletes that are able to openly profess their faith, blessing themselves at home plate or in the end zone, in defiance of our secular pop culture.

A few years ago, media debate surrounded a handful of public school districts that banned teachers and other public school personnel from wearing religious jewelry.  I'm not sure how or if, that debate was settled but, I know that I most certainly would have fought for my rights, had I been similarly instructed.

I have found, that most people have no interest in trying to convert their neighbor or debate their religious convictions.  Most people, simply want to be left alone, to worship or not, in peace. 

On September 11, 2001, for the first time in years, students in a public high school in California, stood while a school administrator recited the pledge of allegiance over the public address system.  The pledge was followed by a brief and impromptu prayer for the nation, and its citizens.  For a few moments, God had been invited back into the classroom.

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