No getting over `under God'


Lawsuits: A Baltimore atheist and a California atheist work to alter the Pledge of Allegiance -- four decades apart.

March 28, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT HAS BEEN more than four decades since Baltimore atheist Madalyn Murray (later Madalyn Murray O'Hair) convinced eight of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices that prayer has no place in the public schools.

Last week, another atheist, Californian Michael A. Newdow, came before the high court to finish the job O'Hair had started after her stunning victory on school prayer -- the removal of "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

O'Hair is long gone -- she was murdered in Texas nine years ago -- but Baltimoreans of a certain age will remember that after winning the prayer case in 1963, she turned her sights on the pledge, to which Congress had added "under God" only eight years earlier.

But the school board had had enough. More than 2,000 people signed a petition in favor of keeping the nation under God, at least in the pledge, and O'Hair was rebuffed by the board and state courts. Not long after, she and her family skipped town ahead of an arrest warrant charging her with assault, resisting arrest and contempt of court.

Of Baltimore, O'Hair said later: "They should put a fence around the place, and everybody in it could stay together for eternity. They deserve it."

In the early 1960s, emotions over the school prayer and "under God" issues ran high. Every board meeting was packed, and the perfectly named Baltimore superintendent, George B. Brain, said he HAd never encountered such fury over a single issue.

Since 1905, the Board of School Commissioners had required a reading of a chapter of the Bible or the recitation of the Lord's Prayer in daily opening exercises. "It was just something you did," recalls Ann L. Moore, principal of Sarah M. Roach Elementary, who grew up in Baltimore, "like reciting the pledge today. I think we called it devotions."

Requiring Christian prayers in school offended not only atheists; it also was repugnant to many Jews and Muslims. You couldn't find many of the latter in the schools of the early 1960s, but there were plenty of the former, and their parents were (and are today) ardent supporters of public education.

(Praying in school, by the way, wasn't universal. It seems to have been an East Coast phenomenon. We didn't pray in Montana, for example, perhaps because school authorities knew we were beyond redemption.)

Trudy Hodges, curriculum chairwoman of the Baltimore Council of PTAs, went to school in upstate New York in the years before "under God" and Madalyn Murray. "We said the Lord's Prayer and the pledge without God," she says. "It didn't hurt us. It helped us learn to say `thank you,' `excuse me' and `please.'"

Some African-Americans are fine with the "under God" phrase in the pledge but not with the words on either side. "What bothers me and a lot of other people is that other little piece, `one nation ... indivisible,'" says Alice Spearman, mother and grandmother of public school students who was recently elected to the Oakland, Calif., school board. "We are still one nation, divisible by race. Watch, when people of color say the pledge, how many of them don't mouth those words."

At the height of her notoriety, Madalyn Murray appeared on Steve Allen's television show. But it was the actress Barbara Rush who stole the show. After the atheist's fulminations, Rush calmly said, "I could never understand why religion causes so much hate. It's a pity people can't believe what they want to believe without trying to force other people to believe the same thing."


Foe of school closings wins a round in Allegany

Thomas R. Marsh has been fighting the closing and consolidation of schools in Allegany County since the 1980s. Recently, he won a round.

An appeal filed by Marsh last year to prevent the consolidation of Westmar and Beall high schools and the closing of Westmar Middle in Lonaconing had been dismissed by the Allegany school board on the recommendation of an administrative law judge.

But Marsh didn't quit. He appealed the dismissal to Circuit Judge W. Timothy Finan -- and won. Last month, the judge sent the case back to the State Board of Education, where it will now get a full hearing.

"This restores my faith in democracy," said Marsh, who had acted as his own lawyer in the case and in dealings with the state board.

Another war brewing for U.S. public schools?

Cautionary news from the City of Brotherly Love:

Minority students in Philadelphia's public schools are more likely to be taught by inexperienced and uncertified teachers, which violates their civil rights, according to a complaint filed March 8 in federal court.

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