Blackwell wants prayer back in district schools

Posted: March 11, 2011

The U.S. Constitution may prohibit mandatory prayer in public schools, but it doesn't prohibit schools from allowing students to pray on their own initiative, says City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who wants to encourage the practice.

"Students are free to pray alone or in groups as long as the activity is not disruptive and does not infringe on the rights of others," according to a resolution adopted unanimously in Council yesterday at Blackwell's request.

It calls for Council's Education Committee, headed by Blackwell, to schedule hearings on prayer in Philadelphia public schools.

"We want to discuss the policy, see if it needs to be amended and certainly let the citizens know that the issue does exist," Blackwell told reporters. "There is a way people can have free religious expression within schools."

The U.S. Supreme Court issued several landmark rulings in the 1960s, first outlawing required prayer in New York State's public schools and then overturning a Pennsylvania law that mandated Bible readings, as well as the Lord's Prayer.

"In the relationship between man and religion, the state is firmly committed to a position of neutrality," wrote Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark.

The case originated in the Abington school district, where a student was reprimanded for reading from the Quran instead of the Bible.

Shana Kemp, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia School District, said that its current policies date to 1976, when the Board of Education required every school day to begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and one minute of silent meditation.

"During the period of silent meditation, pupils may choose to meditate or to remain silent, but school authorities may not suggest or direct the subject upon which pupils may meditate," according to more detailed rules issued in 1979.

The rules for secondary schools were changed to require the Pledge of Allegiance and meditation period sometime during the school day, not necessarily at the beginning.

In other business, Council voted unanimously to put a question onto the May 17 primary election ballot, asking voters whether to create a 17-member "Job Commission" in a bid "to create and preserve private-sector jobs for Philadelphians."

Both the mayor and Council would name commission members within 30 days. The panel would meet monthly to identify and evaluate the entities and factors affecting private-sector jobs, and then make recommendations for reform by early 2012, said Councilman Darrell Clarke, prime sponsor of the jobs proposal.

Council also approved a major rewrite of the city's anti-discrimination ordinance, strengthening its penalties and extending it to discrimination based on genetic information, familial status or status as a victim of domestic or sexual violence.

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