UAHS hosts annual gathering, See You at the Pole, bringing students of similiar religions closer together. The event brings to light the community’s overall acceptance of differing religious views
By Kristy Helscel ‘11 & Marisa Patwa ‘12
Sophomore Sara Dodsworth wakes up most mornings, exhausted from a late night homework session with a dread of the approaching school day. However, not every morning is as daunting as others—Sept. 23, for example, was a day she would never forget.
When she arrived at school promptly at 7 a.m., Dodsworth found her friends there ready to worship God. They spent the hour before school holding hands around the flagpole, hoping to bring their community together with prayer. According to the See You at the Pole’s website, every fourth Wednesday of Sept. is “See You at the Pole” day, a morning dedicated to prayer and organized by students in a community.
Dodsworth’s goal for SYATP was to show fellow classmates what she believes in, which is not always easy. Dodsworth said she has been insulted by people of different religious views before and it was very hurtful. According to Dodsworth, people have approached her with offensive remarks, assuming that she sits in her room all day idolizing Jesus posters and rocking out to Christian music.
“I chose to turn my cheek the other way, you know, forgive and forget,” Dodsworth said. “But it is difficult to stand up for what you know is right because you don’t want people to believe you’re weird.”
Although Dodswoth has experienced some forms of intolerance from fellow students, she said she believes that UAHS has a generally accepting attitude toward other’s religious views. Along with Dodsworth, sophomore Caleb Belew attended SYATP 2009. As he prayed with his friends, he noticed a number of students who witnessed the gathering with questioning looks on their faces.
“Most people would walk by and you could hear them as [we] prayed, [saying] ‘What are they doing?’ [or] ‘Oh, they’re praying…weird.’” Belew said.
Junior Amanda Loch was one such student, and when she arrived at school early that day to meet with a teacher she was surprised to see a group of students huddled around the school’s main flagpole.
“They looked entranced and very emotional, but I couldn’t tell what they were doing,” she said. “I thought that they may have been part of some weird club I had never heard of before. But when I came back outside a little later to walk to my first period class, they were all still there, and I began to wonder if it was legal or not.”
CROSSING THE LINE
Despite Loch’s doubts, SYATP is legal due to the 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The case arose when three high school students were suspended from school for wearing black armbands as a form of protest against the Vietnam War. In the end, the court ruled in favor of the students. The majority opinion stated that the students had quietly petitioned for something they believed in and were not encroaching upon the rights of others or causing a disruption in school activities. Both those students and the students that engaged in SYATP at UA are protected under the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
According to the American Center of Law and Justice, if a state refused to allow religious groups access to public facilities, it would demonstrate not neutrality but hostility toward religion. The acceptance of SYATP has allowed UA students to create their own religious gathering in accordance with the international date of SYATP.
According to principal Kip Greenhill, such religious acceptance would not exist without the parents setting the tone for their children.
“Our parents set the tone, which is reinforced by the school,” Greenhill said.
Outside of UA, parents continue to play a major role in supporting the rights of their kids. In Tennessee, five concerned and disgruntled parents sued the Wilson County School Board for violating their children’s rights to free speech and to be treated equally. The elementary school had censored references to God from the SYATP posters students had posted around the school. The posters included phrases such as ‘God Bless the USA’ and ‘In God We Trust.’
The court agreed in the parent’s defense, as their children’s rights were protected through the First Amendment. Therefore, these students had the right to post these phrases as a form of expressing their own beliefs.
However, in the 2000 case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the United States Supreme Court exclaimed that student-led prayer at football games violated the Establishment Clause, which states, Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
UAHS’ field hockey team recently experienced a similar instance including a combination of prayer and athletics while visiting St. Ursula Academy in Toledo. The team was asked to bow their heads and pray, in place of the Star Spangled Banner. Senior Kelsey Kessler said it was a strange situation under the circumstances and that the team did not know how exactly to react.
“We all just kind of looked around and no one knew what to do,” Kessler said. “It was distracting and made [some people of other religions] uncomfortable.
Junior Sophie Lee said she agrees with the idea that students should stay neutral in public events. She thinks that they should not try and spread their beliefs on others, making the situation not only awkward, but offensive to them as well. Lee also said she believes that religion and school should not intermix, because the same reactions that occurred at the Field Hockey game could occur with students in the classroom as well.
“Religion in [school] promotes segregation based on beliefs due to the audience of kids who have a hard enough time thinking for themselves as is,” Lee said.
Another instance in which the mix of religion in school was questioned legally occurred in 2002 when a parent challenged the use of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals favored the parent, saying that they had a right to protest this act of religion on school grounds. The court agreed that these types of religious phrases promoted a monotheistic religion in a school setting, though, the law is applicable by the state. In Ohio, there is a policy offering the recitation of the pledge, but is ultimately decided by the school board.
Lee said she agreed with the court case in that such a promotion of religion is unfair.
“No kid is confident enough to say ‘No, I am not going to stand up and chant this with you because I have no idea what it means.’ Why do we even think we need that in schools?” Lee said. “Not a single kid thoroughly knows what they are affirming.”
A DIVIDED CLASSROOM
Still, there are common misconceptions about what is acceptable in the classroom and what is not, especially during history class.
Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, said history teachers are divided over how to characterize the role of religion, specifically Protestant Christianity, in the nation’s founding.
“The Constitution establishes a secular state built upon the principles of religious liberty,” Haynes said. “At the heart of that liberty is freedom from state-imposed religion, especially in our public schools.”
English teacher Laura Mills said she believes that history is a controversial subject in school as well.
“So many wars have been fought over religion and it is hard to teach the subject without offending students or sounding like [the teachers] are promoting something that they are not,” Mills said.
According to Greenhill, in accordance with the laws maintaining the separation of church and state, the school is unable to do anything that promotes religion—this does not mean religion is unmentionable.
“It is important to have discussions about [any particular religion],” he said. “We can teach the bible as a piece of literature, but the school cannot do anything to promote religion.”
Despite the previous notion, some students in UA believe religion is punishable upon mentioning while on school grounds, including sophomore Phil Sherra. And as a result Sherra has incorrect assumptions over the issue.
“Christianity is not tolerated at all because if you even have a Bible you can get written up,” Sherra said. “People who say ‘Merry Christmas’ get in trouble because we are ‘forcing’ our beliefs on someone else.”
Although this presumption is indeed, inaccurate, Sherra said he believes that religion is truly a heated subject in school and those who discuss their ideas will be reprimanded. However, this is not the case—religion can be taught in school, but it can not be promoted under any circumstances.
Loch said she agrees with Sherra that religion is a topic veered away from in the classroom, but is something to be celebrated, not avoided.
“People should be able to talk openly about their beliefs without fear of being ridiculed,” Loch said. “But as long as [religion] is avoided as a taboo subject at school, it will just be harder for people to learn to accept those who believe in something different than what they believe.”
Mills said she feels that she must be extremely careful in class when religion is brought up. Almost every year, she teaches Lord of the Flies to her freshmen English class and must remember to be weary of the fact that not every student will understand the biblical allusions used because they are from different religious backgrounds.
“I usually veer away from any talk of religion because I strongly believe in the separation of church and state,” Mills said. “However, it is alright if students express themselves religiously if they are referencing to a piece of literature we are studying.”
Though students are restricted to discuss their religious beliefs in the classroom, students are allowed to create clubs with only one restriction.
“Students can come together on their own and form a club,” Greenhill said. “[However,] the advisor cannot be a teacher.”
Mills said she believes teachers, like students deserve the right to express their religious views while on campus.
“If other teachers want to participate or help the kids, I think that’s fine,” Mills said. “Teachers are people too. They’re advisors, mentors, and leaders, and students look up to them for guidance and they have their own religious beliefs that have the right to be shared. ”
PAYING IT FORWARD
In terms of SYATP and other student-organized forms of religion, Mills said she has no problem with it as long as students are not offending other people.
Sophomore Ryan Fry, a devout Catholic, said he is not offended by SYATP or even opposed to the gathering—in fact, he was merely unable to attend.
“I have no problem with people praying,” Fry said. “And it is not important where you pray as long as you pray.”
Although Junior Zaynab Amin is Muslim, she has many Christian friends who she tends to engage into heated debates with—they both know they have the right to.
“We live in America and we have the right to discuss our religious views,” Amin said. “[The students] organized [SYATP] themselves and everyone has the right to do their own thing.”
Belew said he does not believe that by praying at the pole that he is offending students from other religions.
“I pray at the pole every year so that people can see that I do care,” Belew said.
Dodsworth said she does not want to cause controversy, but only wanted wants others to be familiar with to SYATP and what it stands for.
“When people see us praying they think ‘wow what are they doing’ and it makes them wonder,” Dodsworth said. “But all we’re doing is standing up for what we believe in.”