This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
City Council member Jannie Blackwell, (D-3rd District) wants Council to hold hearings on prayer in public schools.
She has introduced a one-page resolution saying that “schools should respect the right of students to engage in religious activity and discussion” and calling prayer a way to “promote more virtuous living [that] may have a positive impact on student behavior in schools.”
A spokesperson for Blackwell, Anjali Chainani, said Blackwell has “had numerous calls from [senior citizens] almost every day telling her she needs to do something” about prayer in schools, “so she is responding to their concerns.”
Under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, students can exercise their religious freedoms in schools, but organized prayer is prohibited. Blackwell’s resolution says that “encouraging students to not only pray for themselves but to pray for others can cause students to think more of their follow classmates then [sic] of themselves, to lead lives of thankfulness.”
Chainani said that while Blackwell’s elderly constituents clearly wanted the council member to encourage prayer in schools, “because of the constitutional laws and all, she obviously can’t do that. All she can do is hold a hearing.” Blackwell’s district covers parts of West and Southwest Philadelphia.
The Education Committee has to consider the resolution before hearings are scheduled, but “the hearings will happen,” said Chainani.
Coming on the heels of reports about widespread intergroup and intercultural conflict in schools, the resolution says that “exercising compassion and understanding when engaging with other faith communities is important to achieve harmony and right relationships with others including students, teachers, parents, school administration and community leaders.”
“We’re just going to hear the testimony from other people,” said Chainani. “It can be a controversial issue. It’s just for open discussion.”
Read the resolution below:
RESOLUTION Calling on the City Council Committee on Education to hold hearings on Prayer in Philadelphia Public Schools.
Whereas, 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; and
Whereas, the First Amendment to the Constitution requires that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and
Whereas, students have the right to initiate religious activities with other students including prayer, religious forums or discussions and faith-based clubs; and
Whereas, schools should respect the right of students to engage in religious activity and discussion; and
Whereas, prayer can promote more virtuous living and may have a positive impact on student behavior in schools; and
Whereas, encouraging students to not only pray for themselves but to pray for others can cause students to think more of their follow classmates then of themselves, to lead lives of thankfulness; and
Whereas, exercising compassion and understanding when engaging with other faith communities is important to achieve harmony and right relationships with others including students, teachers, parents, school administration and community leaders; and
Whereas, the late Reverend Marguerite Handy, former Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives worked tirelessly to bring religious leaders of all faiths together for positive collaboration; and
Whereas, we support students who have an interest in their faith; and
Whereas, we encourage all students to use their faith in their daily living and when necessary to keep a positive attitude and give their best in school to ensure a bright future.
Whereas, now therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Education Calls to Hold Hearings on Prayer in Philadelphia Public Schools.
Jannie L. Blackwell
Philadelphia City Council
3rd Council District
March 3, 2011