Religion and the "Community School":

One Teacher's Experience in a Memphis Public School

Douglass Elementary is commonly described as a “community school”, serving the entire neighborhood, children and adults alike. This community orientation is generally thought of as a positive trait, and in many ways it is. The openness of the school allows for parents and other family members to take some part in the formal education of their children by assisting teachers, coaching students, and otherwise helping with school activities. In return, the school provides assistance to many family members, mostly through the Family Resource Center located in the school.

A particular effort is made by the administration at Douglass Elementary to assure that the school’s academic instruction and extracurricular activities conform to the cultural expectations of the surrounding neighborhood. For example, because the school’s student body is almost 100% African-American, special attention is given to African-American history and culture. The history of the neighborhood is also the subject of a great deal of attention, and in order to help the students feel pride in their community, speakers who grew up in the area and went on to achieve some sort of success are often invited to come to the school and give motivational speeches.

It was during one such speech that I first realized the depth at which the values of the school and the school’s community differ from mine. The event was the anniversary of the school’s Family Resource Center, and the entire school interrupted its normal routine of academic instruction in order to attend the ceremony held in honor of the occasion. The manager of the Center was a reverend, and so I was not surprised when I learned that most of the guests invited to take part in the program were neighborhood religious leaders. I was surprised, however, at the way that these guests applied their professional skills to this public school function.

As Principal Myra Whitney sat watching, the program began with a prayer offered by one of the guests on the stage. Ms. Whitney, the other administrators, the school’s teachers and students all took part in the prayer, which called upon Jesus Christ to bring divine blessings to the Family Resource Center and Douglass Elementary School. As I looked around the cafeteria, I realized that I was the only person in the school not taking part in the prayer.

I did not take part in the prayer because I am not a Christian. I am not religious in any way, I never have been, and I have no desire to be in the future. One of the reasons that I wanted to teach in a public school was that I knew that almost all private schools in the Memphis area are in some way religious. Just as I would not teach academic material that I believed to be inaccurate, it would be unprofessional of me to teach students to follow beliefs that I myself did not agree with. On the other hand, I have never had any desire to persuade other people’s children to adopt my own attitudes. The doctrine of separation of church and state which applies to public schools is intended to create an environment of tolerance for a diversity of backgrounds and beliefs. It was in such an environment that I had assumed I would be working.

This assumption proved to be inaccurate. I had seen many instances of institutional religious expression at Douglass Elementary School previous to the schoolwide prayer at the Family Resource Center program. For instance, I had been asked to join a prayer group for teachers and students held in a classroom a few minutes before the official start of school. I also had observed Bible quotations and Christian paraphernalia prominently displayed in classrooms. However, although I thought that these practices were inappropriate, I did not believe that they constituted direct pressure on students to conform to Christian practices. I therefore had decided not to discuss my uneasiness about these partisan religious intrusions into the public school environment.

I immediately felt a different level of discomfort during the whole-school prayer delivered at the Family Resource Center Program. The fact that the prayer was being given as a formal introduction to a school-sponsored program, a gathering in which there are clear expectations for student participation, meant that there was considerable pressure for students to take part in the religious activity. In fact, participation by students and teachers alike was quick and automatic, as if institutional prayer at Douglass Elementary was a common occurrence.

The inclusion of religious ritual did not end with the introductory prayer, but continued throughout the rest of the program, culminating in the words of the main speaker, a preacher from a local church who delivered not a speech, but a sermon. I understand that among religious people, it is not uncommon to give thanks to God during public addresses. However, in the case of the lecture given at the Family Resource Center assembly, thanks to God were not restricted to a tangential comments, but provided the main theme.

The basic idea conveyed by the speaker was that the only way that a person could succeed was by being a Christian. If students did not give their lives over to Jesus Christ, the speaker warned, they would end up out on the streets, without work, doing drugs. The speaker also told the audience that people who have stopped going to church and who refuse to put their trust in Jesus are responsible for the societal problems evident in the Douglass neighborhood.

Through the use of examples and repetition, this message was delivered without interruption for 45 minutes, during most of which the preacher was screaming into the microphone. Many audience members clearly enjoyed the sermon, rising out of their seats, clapping, and shouting “Amen!” on many occasions. After a few minutes, however, many students became restless and started covering their ears, asking me if they could leave.

I was unsure of what to do. On the one hand, I was supposed to be making sure that my students were behaving as a polite audience for a guest to the school. On the other hand, that guest was shouting a message of religious intolerance at the top of his lungs. That guest was telling my students that if they did not share his religious beliefs, they would be failures. That guest was telling my students that non-religious people such as myself are to blame for the problems they face in their neighborhood. I myself had to leave the cafeteria for a few minutes in the middle of the sermon because I was so angry. Toward the end of the presentation, when the preacher began having the audience repeat in unison a promise to commit their lives to Jesus, I ended up allowing a few of my students to leave one at a time to stretch their legs and get a drink of water.

A few days later, I visited the school guidance counselor and told her of my anger and uneasiness about the religious nature of the Family Resource Center program and the other instances of religious activity in the school. She agreed that the program specifically and the presence of religion in general were inappropriate, but also warned me that it would not be wise to say anything about the matter to anyone else at the school. When I suggested the idea of talking to someone at the Memphis City Schools Board of Education, the counselor seemed hesitant and told me that if I did write a letter to the Board, I should not put my name or the name of my school on the complaint. Later that week, I sent a letter of complaint to the Board of Education, but as the letter was anonymous and did not mention Douglass Elementary as the school at which the events occurred, I do not know if any actions were taken to follow up on the complaint. Upon reflection, it occurs to me that very little could be done to follow up on a complaint that was offered anonyously and without mention of the school in which the events being complained about took place.

Public school sponsorship of organized religious activity is often justified by the assertion that schools should reinforce the values of the communities that they serve. The soundness of this idea can be tested by considering the different community value systems to which a school might be asked to adapt. If a public school’s community was predominantly Republican, would it be appropriate for that school to inculcate the values of Republican politics? Consider that it is common for anti-educational values to be predominant in the communities served by public schools. Would it be reasonable in these instances to suggest that schools should adopt anti-educational approaches in order to conform to their communities? Public school conformity to community values appears to be reasonable when considered in a few particular circumstances, but reveals itself as an untenable practice when examined as a general concept.

The fact that most of the families served by Douglass Elementary are Christian does not make the practice of organized Christian rituals there acceptable. The separation of church and state established in the Constitution is intended to prevent any sort of governmental influence on the decisions of individuals to participate in one religious tradition or another, or none at all. Even students that come from Christian families may not want to take part in Christian rituals. Although the parents of these children may coerce them into attending Christian services when they are away from school, it is not the part of any governmental institution, such as a public school, to take part in such coercion.

Douglass Elementary School is part of the Douglass community, but it is also part of the larger communities of Memphis, Tennessee, the United States of America, and the Earth. In one way or another, Douglass Elementary receives support from all of these levels of community. Therefore, if it is to be a truly open community school, it must be open not only to the values of the immediate local community, but also to the diversity of values that are held in the larger communities of which it is a part. Such an acceptance of diversity is legally and socially necessary, but even more importantly, is beneficial to the education of students who will have to be able to adapt to the increasingly global nature of our society in order to be successful adults. If Douglass Elementary is to operate as a community school, it must do so as part of a community that is willing to look outward, not as part of a community that wishes to isolate itself from the rest of the world.

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