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Front Page - Friday, November 29, 2019

No, God hasn’t been banned from public schools

They’re cherished relics now: Pages of lined notebook paper on which an earnest young fellow copied the lyrics of Christmas hymns probably posted on an elementary school blackboard.

 “Round yon virgin Mother and child, Holy Infant so tender and mild.”

“The cattle are lowing, the poor baby awakes. But little lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

And so on, verse after familiar verse, all in firm pencil markings. Undated, but probably from the 1930s and signed in cursive script by that earnest young fellow, Lewis Lee Rogers.


Completing the package are other notebook pages from the 1960s, with some of the very same lyrics, dutifully copied by another earnest young fellow: me. Together, the pages make for a touching link between father and son.

They also represent just the kind of classroom activity that, if not handled correctly, might get a school district sued nowadays.

It appears, though, that having students copy Christmas carols is among the few things the Smith County School Systems does not stand accused of today.

A release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which is suing the district in federal court on behalf of two families of atheists, states:

“The unlawful activities … include, among other practices, school-directed prayer during mandatory assemblies; the distribution and display of Bibles during classes; Bible verses posted in hallways and shared in notes from school staff to students; prayers broadcast through loudspeakers at school sporting events; coaches leading or participating in prayer with student athletes; and a large cross painted on the wall of a school athletic facility.”

Sounds pretty much like school as I experienced it, except for the large cross. We weren’t blatant.

We were, however, defiant. The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that organized school prayer was prohibited by the Constitution, but we took no note. We had experience along those lines; we’d been ignoring the court on integration since 1954.

You don’t find much opposition to the 1954 integration ruling these days. But people still blame all manner of societal ills on that 1962 decision, casting it as a public school ban on prayer, or the Bible or God in general. Which it was not.

Nashville schools take a different view of the issue than Smith County.

“The activities like the ones in Smith County would be in violation of MNPS policies (as well as the Constitution),” the schools new spokesman, Sean Braisted, told me in an email.

That policy states this:

“No religious belief or nonbelief shall be promoted or belittled by the school system or its employees. All students and staff members shall be tolerant of the views of others and not discriminate against anyone for a religious viewpoint or lack of a religious viewpoint. Students and staff members shall be excused from participating in practices which are contrary to their religious beliefs.”

Still, there is some wiggle room. School-sponsored or school-directed prayers are barred, but a period of silence may be observed at the start of the school day, at which students are free to pray to whatever deity serves their purpose. Or none.

Students are also free to make voluntary expressions of religious viewpoints.

And: “Students may express religious beliefs in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments.”

Religious symbols can be used as teaching aids. Religious themes can be part of school-sponsored activities and programs, “if presented in a prudent and objective manner.”

Doesn’t sound at all like a ban.

Granted, it’s a long way from the attitude that had me and, 25 or so years earlier, Daddy spending class time recording the merits of the baby Jesus and his birthday. But, all in all, it represents progress, and respect for people of other beliefs.

I suspect the grown-up Jesus would approve.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com