Petitions duel over prayer in school


Since two families — one Jewish and another that remains anonymous — filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the Indian River School District early last year for alleged violations of their freedom of religion, local attention has been affixed to the issue.

In June, a national civil rights Web site called www.jewsonfirst.org picked up the story and tossed the prayer suit under a national spotlight. Since then, bloggers across the country — and the New York Times — have run stories about this issue that seems to transcend local boundaries.

And now, some local and national opinions are clashing in two contrasting petitions.

Talk2Action and CrossLeft — two more Web-based civil-rights non-profits — have collaborated with JewsOnFirst on a petition organized through the Internet to rally opposition to the school district’s case.

Owners of the Ocean View Family Restaurant on Route 26 have taken the reverse opinion, starting a petition earlier this summer to put prayer back into schools. Sherri Walker, a co-owner of the Ocean View restaurant, said that more than 500 people have signed the petition. The number of people that signed the Web-based petition was not immediately available.

“I just think that its time that our kids know about the Lord,” Walker said, adding that she wants Bible classes and open Christian prayer in schools “Everyone wants to take God away from everything. I don’t understand that.”

Upon entering the Ocean View Family Restaurant, the petition is hard to miss. Just to the left of the door, it reads: “Our children need your help. Please help us to make Del. the first state to bring prayer back in our schools. If you would like to see this happen, please sign your name and address below. We believe all things are possible with God. Thank you and may God bless you.”

Links to the other, conflicting, petition can be found on the Internet, at www.crossleft.org/?q=node/1865. A brief synopsis of the case can be found at that site and, beyond the link, would-be petitioners can read a letter written by Dr. Bruce Prescott, an Oklahoma Baptist leader, which is sent to Indian River Superintendent Dr. Susan Bunting with each signature. (Bunting redirected any questions related to the prayer suit.)

“America’s public schools serve children from families of many different faiths and traditions. Every parent of every faith has the right to expect that the public schools will not be used to impose religious beliefs. We call upon all Americans to raise their voices together,” the petition’s letter reads.

“I simply thought that it was time to raise a challenge to the attitude to what some would call ‘Christian supremacy,’” said Bruce Wilson, a co-founder of Talk2Action who essentially started the petition. Wilson said he was raised Methodist but no longer identifies with any particular faith. “The issue transcends the immediate region and goes to a growing assumption that it’s OK for majorities to impose their political will.”

The families’ complaint, filed in federal court in early 2005, claims that some district teachers handed out Bibles in class; and that one in particular told students that there was only one true religion; and it claims that students in the school Bible club received preferential treatment.

The complaint also claims that prayer, especially Christian prayer, at school-board meetings, athletic events and other school functions created a religiously exclusive environment within the district. The district’s board refused to settle the case in February, resulting in a lawsuit by its insurer.

“If in my community, if people were coming in using the schools as a place to proselytize and then to shame people that were not of the majority religion, I would be appalled,” said Haim Beliak, a co-founder of JewsOnFirst and a Rabbi at a Jewish congregation in California. “I live in an area that most of the people within a 10-block radius are Jewish. (But) the idea that Judaism would be taught in public schools is shocking. I would be at the doorstep of the schools.”

Bruce Layton, an Ocean View resident and president of Lower Sussex Little League’s board of directors who signed the local, pro-prayer petition, said that establishing a school-sponsored religion is not his goal. As a Sunday-school teacher at Ocean View Church of Christ, Bible study should remain in churches, he said. Individual prayer, however, such as at football games, he noted, shouldn’t be looked down upon.

“I believe in prayer. I believe it helps,” Layton said. “If you interject that into schools, I also realize that there are many different types of religion. That would have to be up to the individual.”

Walker has a different opinion. Ignoring a difference of beliefs amongst Christians and with other faiths, she said, “This has always been a Judeo-Christian nation” and prayer in schools should be explicitly Christian.

“I’m talking about (praying) to our god. Not to Muslims’,” said Walker, a Pennsylvania native. “That’s what our nation always was. I don’t know why that would be offensive. When you can have a Bible study in China and Russia and not in the U.S. — there’s something wrong there.”