Philly Councilwoman Blackwell to hold hearing on school prayer

Posted: March 12, 2011

Prayer in schools is one of those topics that instantly catches people's attention and threatens to cause controversy.

But Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell said her intention to hold hearings this spring on school prayer should be considered an innocuous boostering of the benefits of a spiritual life and not an attempt to breach the wall between church and state.

Blackwell, chair of the Committee on Education, said she did not plan to advocate for the School District to take action regarding school prayer. She said that her constituents, particularly senior citizens, had requested a hearing and that she was more than willing to broach the topic.

On Thursday, Council passed a resolution she introduced the previous week calling for the Committee on Education to hold hearings.

"I've been asked and asked and asked to introduce it," Blackwell said. "We want to have the discussion so people will know young people have the right of free expression."

Blackwell said her constituents had not raised any specific concerns about prayer, or the lack thereof, in Philadelphia schools. Rather, they have expressed fears about an "overall societal" shift away from religion in public settings.

She said that she did not know whom she would call to speak at a hearing on school prayer, but that she planned to hold one before Council's summer recess.

Long-standing School District policy requires all students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each day, followed by a 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 the policy.

Shana Kemp, a spokeswoman for the district, said officials had no opinion on Blackwell's plans for a hearing.

The resolution passed Thursday notes that "prayer can promote more virtuous living and may have a positive impact on student behavior."

Encouraging students to pray, Blackwell said, could also encourage them to think about the social-justice aspects of religion.

"Man naturally wants to help his fellow man," she said. "I'm hoping that, in 2011, we can foster that feeling of love and being my brother's keeper."


Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com.

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