Last year the Florida Legislature passed a bill that allowed returning outright prayer to public schools. Not a moment of silence, not the gathering around the flagpole on the National Day of Prayer, but the bona fide right of students to lead other students in prayer at any assembly, even mandatory ones. School officials are prohibited from interfering, or even judging whether the prayer in question is appropriate. Theoretically, a prayer could invoke the Holy Trinity in every line, making it explicitly Christian. It could also invoke Wiccan paganism, though given Florida’s more Christian-theocratic mania these days, we know well what sort of hosannas would prevail.
One caveat: the law does require local school boards to pass resolutions enacting the allowance first. It’s a constitutionally problematic law in many regards. Beside the outright violation of the First Amendment—public schools, as government entities, would be endorsing religion whether a prayer is student-led or not, since students are acting under authority of their school—prayer of any sort at student assemblies would be a coercive end-run around at least some students’ right to be left alone. It’s a bigger problem if school boards must enact a resolution to enable student prayer, because it certifies that prayer is made possible at the will of the board. Government boards should never be that lordly, especially not to arbitrate First Amendment protections.
Not surprisingly, not a single one of Florida’s 67 school boards enacted such a resolution. They’ve followed the state School Board Association’s advice: leave well enough alone. It’s not worth the legal muck that could be triggered by one extremist invocation too many.
That enlightened streak may be about to end.
For the last two meetings of the Flagler County School Board, member John Fischer has implored his colleagues to seize on the state law and return prayer to schools. He’s done so through two fuming, bizarre, somewhat incoherent speeches dripping with resentment even as he was calling for everyone to “get along.” The first time he spoke only as “his opinion.” The second, it got serious: he was asking for a policy change.
Both times he laced his overheated proposal in a double-bladed call to unity while attacking “political correctness” and “special interests” for keeping prayer out of schools. “You know, there’s just hate,” Fischer said, uttering the word no less than five times in his first speech, without providing a single example of the “hate” he spoke of, even though he said he’d seen it in the school board’s own meeting chambers. Then he made that leap to an assumed link between the “hate” and the absence of prayer in school.
I’ve covered most local government meetings for the past three years, including the school board’s. I’ve seen a few tense meetings, a few displays of people power through forceful opposition to certain issues, but nothing beyond the sort of earnest, democratic engagement we should be glad for, and proud of. Hate? Not once, especially not under the chairmanships of Sue Dickinson and Andy Dance (or, for that matter, that of Jane Mealy in Flagler Beach, Barbara Revels, Alan Peterson and Nate McLaughlin at the county, or the mayorships of Jon Netts in Palm Coast and Catherine Robinson in Bunnell). Unions asking for fair treatment, residents angered over taxes or fees, parents torn up about uniforms or the closure of a charter schools—that’s not hate. It’s citizens making their voices heard to their representative government.
Fischer’s allegation smells of baseless claims people in power sometimes make because they know they’ll be heard, and because they know they often won’t be held to account. It’s a casual, common form of abuse of authority. To use Fischer’s own descriptive characterization of that alleged “hate” he sees in the school board chambers, “it’s disgusting.” But it shouldn’t be the springboard to policy.
It’s difficult to make sense of Fischer’s speeches, which ramble and mangle in the literal sense of the term. Here’s a sample from the first speech: “You know there’s just hate. Why can’t we get along? Don’t be afraid of the political correctness. Don’t be afraid of all the activist groups. Don’t be afraid of all these people’s hate, and spread hate. Where’s our rights? Why don’t we start—cause I talked to a lot of people, and listen to a lot of people, and they feel the same way, but I think maybe people are afraid to say something because they’re afraid of the political correctness. Well, is it—I’m very proud of being Catholic, and an American, and my country, my flag, and I’m very proud to say that whatever it takes, I’m not going to be on a soapbox, but I think we should give that consideration, to maybe having prayer in schools, at our meetings…”
In his second speech, he began by reading from a quite moving piece by the Observer’s Brian McMillan, about the Pledge of Allegiance (and missing its point entirely), though he managed to mangle even McMillan’s words several times, before launching again on a tirade about how “our country has too many of these uh, self-satisfying political groups and special interest groups, and political correctness,” and therefore—his inexplicable logic—the need to bring prayer back in school. (You can read the two full speeches below.)
Fischer’s call for prayer wasn’t originating from a place of charity or good will, but of bitterness. Even as he called for comity, he was doing so by projecting an imaginary us-versus-them divide he did not define beyond those who pray to a Christian god, and those who don’t. That made Fischer—not the vague “self-satisfying groups” he was attacking—sound hateful. I was reminded of Jerry Falwell’s revolting statement after the attack of 9/11, when the late evangelical bigot said: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” At least Falwell apologized.
Fischer doubled down. His criticism of “special interests” and “political correctness” is ironic (to not say insulting), considering what that correctness has enabled in public schools: racial integration, equality for girls in school athletics, equality for students with special needs, anti-bullying campaigns, respect for students of all creeds and lifestyles, whether atheist, Catholic, gay, Wiccan or undefined. “Where’s our rights,” John? Those are our rights.
Would you care, John, to be more specific in your attacks on “special interests,” so we can really know whether there is an issue worth addressing? What “special interest” groups are you complaining about? Unions? Civil liberties groups? The NAACP? Our own Merrill Shapiro’s Americans United for the Separation of Church and State? The National Organization for Women? Or is this just your own resentments couched in the language of imaginary persecutions and victimhood?
One of the great and enduring successes of the American public school, all academic hand-wringing aside, is its admirable reflection of principles of equal opportunity, fairness and respect for all. Few other institutions, including private and charter schools, can make that claim. Schools’ balancing of public and private religious rights is among those successes. Why jeopardize it?
And if it’s the absence of prayer from schools Fischer is bemoaning, He is flatly wrong on that count, too. Even before last year’s resurrection of school prayer, Florida wasn’t quite the atheist-godless-communist redoubt its mullahs would make you believe it was. Public schools could and still may provide up to two minutes of silence at the beginning of every day for prayer or meditation. (Schools are loath to do that only because their hours have been slashed as it is, to save money, so further reducing instructional time wouldn’t be wise.) Students can pray at any time of their choosing, anywhere they please, even in groups, as long as it doesn’t interfere with school activities. Florida law also requires the Department of Education to distribute explicit guidelines on “Religious Expression in Public Schools” to every school board member, superintendent, principal and teacher in every school, making students’ rights to pray very clear.
Then came last year’s curveball of a prayer law. School boards have sensibly held their bats. Let us pray the Flagler County School Board continues to resist the call to prayer, John Fischer’s veiled, angry nostalgia for a more unequal past notwithstanding.
John Fischer’s first speech to the school board, Jan. 22:
“Reflecting again as I said in the last meeting as far as, you know, these tragedies that’s been happening at Columbine, 9/11, and at the, you know, Aurora, and Connecticut, and, Sandy the storm, all these tragedies are happening and as we talked earlier about the gun violence and the ammunition and the videos and the Hollywood and, but, a lot of these things—also the SROs—but just listening to, you know, yesterday even, the inauguration and Martin Luther King, is the swearing in and the benediction, and you know, invocations, and ‘we are one.’ You know, I think that our society has lost—and I really don’t think they’ve lost it, I don’t think that maybe they’re afraid to project it or be proud of it, but it’s prayer, and our flag, and our country, and I think with this political correctness in this world we have now, there’s just so much hate, and I think that—and this is my opinion, it’s not the board, this is for me—most people believe in god, country and flag. Whatever faith that you are. We’re all god’s children, and when people want something, many pray for help, whether it be family, sickness, surgery, job, financial, losing home, affording college, after something happens, everyone comes together. You know, there’s not a divide. Why can’t we all be all one at time. Why can’t we listen and communicate with those, we can all do the best and right thing for all of us. Just as Mr. Dance has mentioned before I believe it was as far as, look at the problems we’re having in our Congress. You know there’s just hate. Why can’t we get along? Don’t be afraid of the political correctness. Don’t be afraid of all the activist groups. Don’t be afraid of all these people’s hate, and spread hate. Where’s our rights? Why don’t we start—cause I talked to a lot of people, and listen to a lot of people, and they feel the same way, but I think maybe people are afraid to say something because they’re afraid of the political correctness. Well, is it—I’m very proud of being Catholic, and an American, and my country, my flag, and I’m very proud to say that whatever it takes, I’m not going to be on a soapbox, but I think we should give that consideration, to maybe having prayer in schools, at our meetings, and like you saw yesterday, the swearing in, the inauguration, the invocations. You have it at NASCAR. You know, why can’t we bring back family values, bring the character that we’re known for instead of all this hate. And there’s just so, even in this chamber I see people with hate, and It’s just, it’s disgusting. But I think that we have love in us, if we can project that from our hearts, and—thank you.”
John Fischer’s second speech to the school board, Feb. 5:
“Ms. Conklin [Flagler County School Board Colleen Conklin] I want to thank you for the power of one, I have some recommendations for upcoming situations. And if we look at the power of one, actually what does that mean? Can we put that as far as, will we as a nation be the power of one? Can we be united in god and country? I just spoke to Mr. Alter earlier in the evening here, and, uh, if you have a chance, maybe for future consideration, if you look at the state bill 98, about prayer in schools and different situations, um, so if you can read that over and maybe in a few we could do a workshop on that, speaking to Mr. Alter what he thinks about it, you know our country has too many of these uh, self-satisfying political groups and special interest groups, and political correctness. When are we in fact going to stand up? There’s an awful lot of people that really feel in strength that we believe in our country and god, and if in fact we don’t stand up. We’re going to lose what we have. So I would think and I would consider, you know, prayer in the schools, and also, is that maybe we could talk about it in the future here coming up as far as even prayer before our meetings as they do like in Congress and at different local—there’s no other county in Florida that has even talked about or, you know, did anything about prayer in schools, but maybe we can revitalize and be a pro-active versus reactive. Thank you.”