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Patriotism and Prayer: Can You Have One Without the Other?
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All across the country, the events of September 11 and the ongoing terrorist threat have inspired a surge of patriotism in this country -- and nowhere is that patriotic fervor more evident than in our nation's schools. This week, columnist Linda Starr asks how we, as educators, can make sure that all our students have an equal opportunity to express their love for, and loyalty to, their country.

patriotism n. Love of and devotion to one's country.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,
Fourth Edition.

A lot has happened in our schools in the past two months.

In Rocklin, California, the principal of an elementary school refused to remove the words God Bless America from a marquee in front of the school. A parent, reporting that her child felt "excluded" by the message, had requested that the words be replaced with the image of a flag.

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In today's StarrPoints, columnist Linda Starr discusses how recent patriotic observances are forcing educators to make difficult decisions -- and on how those decisions can affect their students. What do you think? Should a school's patriotic displays and observances include messages that reflect our country's religious roots? Share your reflections on a StarrPoints message board.

Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for more than a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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In Roxbury, New Jersey, in an effort to show respect for those with different religious views, two elementary schools replaced "God Bless America" signs with signs reading "Stand Up for America" and "Proud to be an American." Local residents protested, and the "God Bless America" signs were restored.

In Alcorn County, Mississippi, the principal of an elementary school distributed to every student in her school a button displaying the national motto, "In God We Trust." The buttons are part of a nationwide campaign of the American Family Association, a conservative religious organization.

In Madison, Wisconsin, following a contentious nine-hour hearing, school board members were forced to reverse their decision to not require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily. Individual schools now will decide for themselves whether students are required to recite the Pledge or sing the national anthem.

In Palestine, Texas, Governor Rick Perry participated in a middle school patriotic assembly that included a prayer led by a Protestant minister. Perry said he had no problem ignoring the Supreme Court ban on school prayer at this "crisis moment in our nation's history."

All across the country, the events of September 11 and the ongoing terrorist threat have inspired a renewed spirit of patriotism in this country -- and nowhere is that patriotic fervor more evident than in our nation's schools.

Because so many of our national symbols and patriotic slogans include references to God, this surge of patriotism has also re-ignited the hotly debated issue of prayer in school -- and forced school leaders to answer some difficult questions. Is "God Bless America" a religious statement or an example of "patriotic deism" unrelated to individual beliefs? Is "In God We Trust," our nation's motto, a simple statement of patriotism or a declaration of monotheism? Is requiring students to recite the "Pledge of Allegiance," which contains the phrase "under God," constitutional? Is prayer in schools legal in a patriotic context?

Those are the questions many school leaders are asking themselves, but are they the questions educators should be asking? I don't think so. Those are issues for politicians and legislators and constitutional scholars to decide. As educators, the questions we need to ask ourselves are much simpler: "What action is in the best interests of every one of my students?" and "How can I make sure that every child in my school is able to participate fully in our patriotic displays and observances?"

The answers to those questions won't clarify the "rights" of schools, but they may solve the problem of "what is right" in school.

Making sure that every child is able to participate fully in patriotic displays and observances might mean replacing a "God Bless America" sign with one that reads "We Love America." It might mean providing students with an American flag button instead of a button reading "In God We Trust." It might mean allowing students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as it was originally written (The phrase under God wasn't added until 1954.) or substituting the national anthem for the Pledge. It might mean making adjustments that conflict with our personal beliefs and desires. Will those adjustments diminish the patriotic experience for any of our students? I doubt it.

Failure to make those adjustments, however, could have serious repercussions, both for the children whose family's beliefs differ from the majority view and for the students who are watching how we deal with people who are different -- and learning from our example.

Refusing to replace a sign that makes a child feel excluded sends a message that the words are more important than the child. Insisting on patriotic slogans that include the name of God sends a message that belief in God is a prerequisite for patriotism. Forcing a child to publicly opt out of required patriotic activities risks labeling the child as unpatriotic. It certainly labels him or her "different." Including prayer in a patriotic observance sends a message that it's patriotic to disobey laws we don't agree with. Most important, of course, holding patriotic observances that not all children can participate in deprives the excluded child of the strength and comfort such observances can provide.

However we feel personally about prayer in school, whatever legislators say about the legality of a particular patriotic message, if even one of our students feels excluded from the patriotic experiences enjoyed by his or her classmates, then we are not fulfilling our responsibility as educators.

Our job as educators is to provide for all students. In this time of crisis, that means that we offer all students -- those who are citizens and those who are not; those who believe in one God and those who do not; those whose beliefs allow them to pledge allegiance to the flag and those whose beliefs allow them to pledge allegiance only to God -- equal opportunity to express their love for, and loyalty to, their country. It means that we resist the urge to give in to those who would deny those opportunities to any student. It means that we insist that political or religious issues be settled in the courtroom and not in the classroom.