Columnists > Soul Food

No thanks

A lonely struggle to acknowledge God in the public square

Issue: "Drawing the Line," Feb. 22, 1997

On Feb. 17 our country celebrated the birthdays of two presidents who presided over a country very different from our own. Although the personal religious beliefs of both men are still a subject for historians' debate, both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln repeatedly spoke of a country whose hopes for peace and prosperity depended on God's favor. One teacher in Texas who tried to follow in their footsteps found the path declared off-limits. Here is part of her testimony before the Board of Education in Conroe, Texas:

I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about what is on my heart and mind. You have such an important job in overseeing the district and protecting the rights of our children.

My name is Ginger Pace. This is my 26th year teaching; I have been in the Conroe district for 22 years and have taught art at three elementary schools and served under seven principals.

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I feel privileged to have been able to teach something that I truly love for all these years. Seeing the children's delight when they mix a new color of paint, or recognize a famous painting, or figure out a way to make their paper sculptures stand up are experiences I have each day. I get the joy of seeing crayon drawings of a new puppy, but I also have the sorrow of seeing a picture of a family with a line drawn down the middle because Mommy and Daddy don't live together anymore.

I have always cooperated with my principals and fellow teachers, but on Nov. 18, 1996, an incident happened that greatly disturbed me; that is why I'm here today.

Several weeks ago I put up a Thanksgiving bulletin board that included some of the first graders' drawings of things they were thankful for. The drawings included flowers, trees, families, puppies, churches, and the world. I try to tie in famous art prints with the children's work so they can be exposed to different artists' techniques and styles; I thought it was appropriate to put up a print of a work by the German artist Albrecht Durer titled "Praying Hands." I hand-lettered a simple title that said, "Thank you, God, for ..." since it was about Thanksgiving.

Before school on Nov. 18, the assistant principal told me that I had to take the bulletin board down because it was offensive and there had been two complaints from fellow teachers because of the word "God." I refused to take it down.

After my first class of the day, I was informed that the administration had made a decision to cut the word "God" off the bulletin board to solve the problem.

It is hard to express the sadness I felt and the sense of oppression. This is not Russia, and I could not believe in America in 1996 that the word "God" could not be used in a Thanksgiving bulletin board.

Two days later the principal told me I had broken the law and I was imposing my religion on others. I have never pushed my religious beliefs on any of my students. I honor the parents' requests concerning their children's participation or non-participation in certain art activities, and I always provide alternative activities. The only way I try to practice my religion is by being kind and loving to the children and staff. A co-worker and I meet before school one day a week and pray specifically for the staff and students. We also pray to be salt and light in the workplace.

I appreciate the fact that administrators try to ward off lawsuits by people who are looking for a chance to sue. But I feel there is an inequity when everything relating to Halloween-skeletons, ghosts, and witches-is allowed all over the school. Wizards can be on bulletin boards and a horoscope can be published in the school newspaper, but God is separated from the historical significance of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a national holiday set aside by Congress to give thanks to God. Even the first- and second-grade state-adopted Social Studies texts mention giving thanks to God. From the first president of the United States to the current one, Thanksgiving Proclamations have been given to the people. President Clinton's 1996 proclamation said, "We still-and always-raise our voices in prayer to God, thanking him in humility for the countless blessings he has bestowed on our nation and our people."

It appears to me that the very principles on which our country was founded are being squelched because of the fear of a lawsuit.

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