No place for religious rituals in the classroom

Published March 6, 2007

Hands and gloves. Love and marriage. Rum and Coke. Penn and Teller.

Some things just go together.

And there is at least one thing that foxholes, hospitals and houses of worship have in common: They all are vessels for prayer.

And, if you take away the life-and-death realities of the hunkered-down soldier or worried visitor in the ICU waiting room, there is another place where prayer has always had a front-row seat:

The classroom.

Whether it was asking for divine guidance as tests were handed out, or proffering a petrified plea that the teacher wouldn't ask to see your non-existent homework, classrooms long have doubled as sit-down altars for those who panic more than they prepare.

So, it is not surprising that some of that was going on at Brooksville Elementary School about a month ago as students prepared to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. What is unusual is that, for a change, it was the teachers and the principal who were giving a shout-out to the Higher-Ups.

"It was staff members on their own time who said "Do you mind if we say some prayers for the kids on the Friday night before FCAT, so the kids would do well?" Principal Mary LeDoux told Times staff writer Tom Marshall last week. "We went into all the classrooms and we touched all the desks and asked that the kids would do well," she said.

Actually, LeDoux and "four or five" of her staff members did more than touch the desks; they anointed them with prayer oil. So much oil, said one teacher who disapproved, that the following Monday he suspected vandalism because the desks were still "greasy." Anyone else have a visual of The Breakfast Club's Brat Pack with their soiled fists of angst raised in dissent of detention?

Certainly, most people would appreciate the good intentions of LeDoux's prayer group, which, it should be noted, gathered after school.

But daubing the desks goes a step - or several - beyond a few like-minded educators sharing a good vibe for the collective benefit of their students. What they did, no matter how casual and well-intentioned, was a religious ritual; it should not have happened in a public school, where there are students and employees who have their own rituals and preferred pipelines to God.

It won't happen again, LeDoux said. From now on, prayer meetings will be held off campus. That's good. Last time I knew, the way that prayer thing works it's the thought, not your location, that counts.

The same week as LeDoux's misstep was reported, a story broke in Tampa that puts it perspective. Anthony Giancola, the principal of Van Buren Middle School in Tampa, was accused of buying crack from an undercover cop and trying to smoke it right there in his office.

All the holy oil in the Sunshine State won't wash away that outrageous behavior; Giancola doesn't have a prayer of stepping inside a classroom again.

In the meantime, we'll wait to see the results of the FCAT scores at Brooksville Elementary. If they improve significantly, look for prayer oil to be a line item in the School District's budget next year, and for LaDoux on Oprah to promote her new book: The Four Rs: reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic and reverence.

Jeff Webb can be reached at webb@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6123.