City Council debates prayer in school

CENTER CITY - November 28, 2011

"Please, let us get the prayer back in school. They don't have to have it in the classroom. Have a little area where everybody can go in and say their little separate prayer," Simmons said.

Simmons was a mentor to young women in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell grew up.

Blackwell, the Education Committee Chairwoman, promised Simmons a public hearing on the issue.

"Prayer can promote more virtuous living and may have a positive impact on student behavior in schools," Blackwell said.

The school district's unwritten policy allows students to voluntarily pray as individuals or in groups. What the district cannot do is organize, encourage, promote or mandate prayer in the public school setting.

Back in 1963, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory prayer in public schools saying it was unconstitutional and unfair to children of minority faiths or those with no religious faith at all.

"Council chambers and teachers' desks should not serve as pulpits for religious doctrines," Barry Morrison of the Anti-Defamation League said during the council debate. .

"The first amendment right grants everyone the right to pray in school on a voluntary basis. Individual, silent, and personal prayers have never been forbidden," Robin Shatz of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia said.

But some public figures did come forward to make a case for a return to the old policy.

"For years, we have in the school calendar, allowed for breaks for the Christian holidays, as well as the Jewish holidays. It was part of the school calendar, so how can we say the state and the church are separate?" former candidate for mayor Karen Brown said.

The discussion ended with this hearing. There is no bill or proposal before City Council to challenge the long established law.

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