Bible Wars

What happens when religions disagree? One little-known case from American history illustrates the dangers of having ANY religious exercise mandated in our public schools...

There is a piece of American history -- American religious history -- which school prayer advocates do not choose to mention. This concerns the infamous "Bible wars" which erupted in Philadelphia. Madalyn Murray O\'Hair discussed this obscure event in her book Freedom Under Siege:

"When the Roman Catholics themselves would not provide enough schools, the Catholic church turned to fight the public schools where the Catholic children were in attendance. Some people today even credit our now totally secular schools to the fact that the Roman Catholic church fought so vigorously for the removal of all the religious matter in the curriculum which might be interpreted as adverse reflection on Catholicism. Conversely, rather than have an intrusion of Roman Catholic doctrines, the Protestants agreed to secularize the schools. During the nineteenth century, then, both the Protestants and the Roman Catholics feared the influence of secular education on the faith and morals of the young people, but they each, equally, feared the theological supremacy of the other more.

"The road to secularization, however, was not free of difficulties or even violence. In 1844, for instance, at the urging of the local bishop, the Philadelphia school board permitted Roman Catholic children in the public schools to read from their own version of the Bible, the Douay Version. The American Protestant Association was outraged. Mass meetings were held, two Roman Catholic churches were burned, and the rioting was stopped only when the bishop ordered all his churches closed. At the church of St. Philip Neri several people were killed. The church was broken open and only the presence of the militia, the mayor and the governor prevented its being burned to the ground..."

Numerous other confrontations followed this incident, as competing religious sects fought over the content of school prayers or other religious instruction in public schools. In 1854, for instance, a mob attacked a Roman Catholic priest in Maine after he urged his followers to seek legal remedies against mandatory Protestant verse in the state\'s public schools. Fifteen years later, in 1869 there were similar confrontations in Cincinnati when Roman Catholic parents went to court in order to remove their children from religious exercises in the city\'s school system.

Especially in today\'s diverse culture, there seems to be little or no agreement about the exact content of the prayers which should be recited in public schools. Although fundamentalist Christians are leading the school prayer effort, many Protestant groups are skeptical, and consider the proposal a threat to religious liberty. Atheists rightly point out that any prayer violates the rights of students who have no religious beliefs.

Could we expect a repeat of the "Bible Wars"? Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities in the United States are already clamoring for "equal access" on behalf of displays and religious events in the public square. New age cults, voodoooists, satanists, spiritualists -- all can insist on having their prayers, holy books and ceremonies incorporated into the activities of our public schools.

A modern day version of the "Bible War" can only divide communities, and fragment parents, teachers, school boards and ultimately the students. Rather than teach values and morals, school prayer could result in confrontations over who -- and what -- is considered "holy". It can balkanize students into competing religious factions, and isolate the many students who have no religious beliefs whatsoever.

Religious faith -- or the lack of it -- should be a private affair. Public schools should not be forums on behalf of religious indoctrination of any kind. Rather than risk a twentieth century version of the "Bible Wars", communities should instead promote genuine tolerance, and ensure that schools remain educational institutions, not bully pulpits.

AMERICAN ATHEISTS [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>