Summer Break Begins with Invitation to Church-State Separation Debate

We’ve plowed ground like this before, but the end of the school year brings my happy household another reminder of the porous separation of church and state in South Dakota.

My daughter brings home her massive end-of-year stack of school papers, among which I find a note to all parents from her classroom teacher. This teacher signs off the note with “God Bless.”

My tax dollars paid for that paper and the copy machine it ran through. My tax dollars paid the salary of the teacher who issued this declaration or religious faith while conducting school business.

To test the propriety of using public resources to express religious sentiments, allow me to offer my top ten list of alternative happy-summer teacher sign-offs. If “God Bless” is acceptable, how about…

  1. Allah Bless
  2. Buddha Bless
  3. God Bless All of Her Children
  4. Gods Bless
  5. God Won’t Bless, Because I’m a Deist Like Thomas Jefferson
  6. God Won’t Bless, Because There Is No God
  7. God Bless, Unless You Believe in a Different God from Mine
  8. Gesundheit!
  9. God Bless Hillary Clinton
  10. Study Hard—Your Next Teacher Will Give You Homework August 24th!

Or how about we just play Rod Stewart?

Nuts—can’t get away from the suffusion of Christian language in pop culture, either. How about a teacher e-mail out a critique of organized religion and megachurches?


62 Responses to Summer Break Begins with Invitation to Church-State Separation Debate

  1. Bill Fleming

    LOL. Namaste, brother Cory. Whether you like it or not. :-)

  2. Peace For All

    A: Did you ask the teacher if she printed her letter at the school using school/state owned paper, ink, and printer? You’ve shown laziness and irresponsibility by your assumption and accusation. Many teachers print at home because they have to. I come from a family full of teachers and they pay for items your tax dollars don’t cover all of the time. Did you donate school supplies to your teacher this year? I did. Republicans do those sorts of things because we feel it’s our responsibility. Don’t bash a God-believing teacher simply because you do not believe. She wrote a lovely note.

    B: Don’t teachers have free speech? She did not sign, “The school wishes God’s blessings upon you.”

    C: Why can’t we all get along? I had Jewish neighbors who wished me Merry Christmas and I wished them Happy Hanukkah. My school sold Chocolate Easter Eggs for a fundraiser and they bought them, calling them Chocolate Eggs. Don’t panic Corey. It was a private, Christian school.

    We really don’t have to bash one another for our differences. We can live harmoniously together and believe differently. If you are offended that a teacher spoke from her or his own beliefs, you should home school. Shelter that poor child before she believes what her mother, as a pastor, should believe. One God. One Way. One Truth.

  3. Nichole Colsch

    I’m not completely sure on the precise history here, but isn’t the common “goodbye” some derivation of the phrase “God be with you”? Now, I’m all in favor of a firm separation of church and state, but this teacher’s closing remark does seen like fairly small potatoes. That said, I’m confident that if the Muslim teacher I worked with this year had signed any of her newsletters “Allah bless,” there would have been considerable blowback. So, you make a fair point.
    I’m reminded (vaguely) of attempts by feminist language revisionists such as Mary Daly to rewrite Webster’s dictionary in order to make it gender neutral. Certainly a worthy exercise in pursuit of a rhetorical point, but perhaps not such a practical endeavor to attempt removing all gendered language from common usage or writing. One of my favorite pastors, Rachael Thorson Mithelman of St. John’s Lutheran in Des Moines, Iowa, does a pretty good job of making her references to God gender-neutral, and I find that it does make a difference and change my thinking as I listen to her sermon casts.

  4. Bill Fleming

    Rule of thumb for atheists and agnostics, any time any believer calls any type of divine goodwill blessing down on you, take it. (It’s the curses you want to avoid, not the blessings :-)

  5. Mr. H, if you start teaching again I truly hope you will use #4 or #6 from your list.

    Hay Camp day, today, Bill.

  6. Don Coyote

    @Nichole Colsch You are right. Goodbye comes from the contraction godbwye around1570. “God be with ye”

    Buddha bless? Which Buddha? Siddha Gautama or one of the numerous Buddhas that have lived throughout history? And since Buddhas are not gods, then how can they give a blessing which are considered divine? Many Buddhists don’t even believe in a god/gods. Makes no sense.

  7. Roger Elgersma

    the constitution says that you can not make a rule about religion, so stop trying to. She or he or the school is off limits to your rules on religion. And they can not tell you that you have to believe in a God.

  8. Actually Roger that is incorrect. The establishment clause of the Constitution (aka the first amendment which “prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion”) contains two parts. The first part deals with passing of laws to establish or respect a specific religion. The second part is where things get interesting, because that is the part where it prohibits the government from preferring a specific religion over any other religion.

    It is this portion of the law which has successfully been used to prevent displays of the Ten Commandments within courtrooms or Nativity Scenes on public property unless equal opportunity is given to other religions to also display their texts or idoltry. This is also why schools cannot mandate students include the “under God” portion of the pledge of allegience, why teachers cannot include a religion-specific prayer as a required part of classroom instruction, or why a public school couldn’t have Jesus or Moses as a mascot.

    So the question is, does this specific incident run afoul of the 1st Amendment? I’m not a constitutional scholar, but including such a phrase could be interpreted as an endorsement of a religion if it was clear which religion he or she was referring to. Had the statement read “Blessings from Christ” this would be evident, but the term “God” is not necessarily specific to any particular religion. This is why we still have courts which include God as part of being sworn in, why we are able to have “In God We Trust” printed on our money, and why South Dakota’s state motto can be “Under God, the People Rule”.

    So in short, I’d argue the teacher’s actions are not unconstitutional because it wasn’t a specific phrase. We may all assume she is referring to a Christian God, but assumption is insufficient when determining matters of law. For all we know, this teacher could be a devout Scientologist and considers L. Ron Hubbard to be his or her “god”.

  9. Peace: yes, the First Amendment applies to teachers. However, in the classroom, on school time, limits apply. For example, school administrators can prohibit me from circulating political petitions or telling students to tell their parents to vote for me while on school grounds on school time.

    The paper came from school. It was distributed in school. It is a school document. If an overtly Christian message on a document distributed as part of school operations is acceptable, are any of the other farewell messages I list above acceptable? That’s the main question.

    Bash? At what point do I bash the teacher? The teacher appears to have done fine work teaching my daughter. I’m asking a constitutional question, and I’m contending that teacher got that question wrong, but I’m not bashing a teacher for getting a question wrong any more than I bash students when I correct their papers.

    Get along? Sure. I’m all about getting along. The Constitution is the starting point for getting along in civil society. We need to follow the Constitution in getting along. I’m not panicking (please, stop trying to read inaccurate emotion into my words to distract from the argument). I’m asking whether you will allow Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists to make affirmative statements of faith in the classroom.

    [By the way, “Peace,” I’ll need a real, functional e-mail address with your next comment. What, does taking accountability for your words send you into a panic?]

  10. Bill, I’ll take it… as I take it when kids shout “Bless you!” to sneezes in the classroom.

    Let’s add “Namaste” to the list. Christian majoritarians, acceptable greeting from your public school teacher to your kids?

  11. Grudz, I’d love to try #6, but I don’t think I can bring myself to say it to students in a taxpayer-maintained classroom in which I serve only by the indulgence of a public school board. I just can’t do it.

  12. Don, I won’t posit the sense or nonsense of any of the listed utterances. My question is whether any of those utterances will pass muster with other parents of other beliefs.

  13. Roger, I agree that religion is off limits for the school. When I am a teacher, I am the school. Can the school say “God Bless,” “Gods Bless,” “God Doesn’t Bless, So Get to Work,” or “May whatever god you believe in have mercy on your soul“?

  14. Deb Geelsdottir

    This does seem like a small, unimportant thing. I will treat it that way when one can say “Satan bless you” or “Allah bless you” and be greeted with shoulder shrugs from the population.

  15. Donald Pay

    Cory,

    If you are that concerned, you could address it with the teacher personally, or, if you aren’t satisfied with the response, you could file a complaint using the district’s process for parent complaints about staff. If the district has a policy on this, bring it to her attention. Maybe she didn’t know. I assume you think she made a minor error in judgement, and that it wasn’t an overt attempt to introduce religion inappropriately in the school environment.

  16. Bob Newland

    Why does anyone feel compelled to say some form of “God Bless.”

    It offends me.

    But then, lots of shit offends me.

    I want laws against stuff that offends me.

    Of course, there already is a law against public employees saying God Bless in documents they write in their official capacity.

    Not that anyone can prosecute them.

    It’s a bullshit system.

  17. Troy Jones

    God Bless this and every teacher. But especially this teacher. :)

  18. Roger Cornelius

    Good Night Creator.

  19. I’m paying for this blog, and I don’t erase Troy’s religious expressions. See, Peace? No panic.

    But Troy isn’t standing at a public school classroom door giving that message to students to whom he enjoys access only because the public has hired him to teach.

    Donald, I may have that conversation with the teacher. But it’s useful and instructive to test the question here and ask about expressions on school time of other religious sentiment are tolerable to public sensibilities and the First Amendment.

  20. Bob Newland offends all sorts of people. I let him hang around here. But I can’t let him come to my classroom and shout “Bulls—!” at the kids. (If I don’t get to say “Bulls—” in my classroom, neither does Bob! :-D )

  21. Bill Fleming

    Would you prefer they just said ‘I love you’ Cory? or ‘love’ as a salutation? To me, that’s really what ‘God bless’ means. It’s an expression of hope from one to another that the highest power there is will be kind to them. In other words, an expression of love of the highest order. My opinion is that we can use more of that, not less. And I would sure hate to see you or anyone else get fired for it.

  22. Bill, you can say pretty much whatever you wish to me. Namaste, God Bless, I love you… 99% of the time from 99% of speakers in 99% of contexts, I take such expressions in exactly the loving, hopeful spirit you offer. But in a classroom, in a courtroom, and in other public settings, words take on additional import and must be used more carefully.

  23. Bill Fleming

    Maybe Cory. But if wishing students and their parents the best things imaginable isn’t allowed by law, something’s wrong with the law. And if those indeed are the rules, why in the world would anyone ever want to be a teacher? Teachers should advocate against mind control, not for it, brother.

  24. Bill Fleming

    P.s. Can you imagine telling the POTUS that since s/he is a government employee it is unconstitutional to end speeches with the words ‘God bless America’?

  25. mike from iowa

    god damn phony kristians!

  26. Peace For All

    Oh Corey. You miss the point. The teacher did not sign off with, “Believe in God and you will be blessed.” The teacher did not instruct the student to do anything. Therefore, I’m pretty sure the “God Bless” did not violate at all, nor would “Allah Bless” etc. But in reference to your point, the teacher should have mailed the note, and from home, on personal time to the student’s home in order to not violate your right to not be blessed by the One and only God.

    The other point that you missed, was that you accused the teacher of using taxpayer money to print and send that note. You have no proof of this. That was my point. (I understand that by handing it out in class, that would be taxpayer money, assuming the teacher was on the clock. Let’s not beat that dead horse.) I’m talking about the paper, ink, and machine you seem concerned about.

    Did I accuse you of panicking? You seem to be now. Not sure why you think that I am. I have no reason to. It is interesting how you ask Christians what they’d tolerate. You were quite intolerant of students who displayed Christian beliefs in their writings in the classroom. You are intolerant now to a sweet note from a teacher by referring to it as a “Invitation to Church-State Separation Debate.” Of course I assume it was not written on an invitation. I have no proof.

    Why is it that you desire more government control over employees? It seems to me that, as a “teacher”, you’d want more freedom in the classroom. Then again, you seem to entertain the idea that dictatorship is the way to go.

    Side Note: Can you even imagine how many tax payer dollars we’d save if there were no recipes, kids pictures, jokes etc. printed off in school offices utilizing taxpayer ink, paper and machines. Perhaps a “God Bless” is the very least of the things that you should be worried about. You could do something real by going after that waste.

  27. So, Peace, if I greet my students on school time by saying, “I’m an atheist, God doesn’t exist, so may Darwin bless you,” you’re o.k. with that?

    You’re o.k. with a Muslim teacher who says “Allahu Akbar” to your Christian kids in school?

    “God bless” is an affirmative statement of faith on school time, taking advantage of a publicly granted position of authority. It violates the First Amendment.

    [Check your inbox. You call me by my name, I get to call you by yours, or at least know it.]

  28. larry kurtz

    ‘peace’ = miles

  29. Peace For All

    I am absolutely okay with you saying that. It brings about wonderful discussion at home.

    A quick search tells me that “allahu akbar” means “God is greater”, so that could bring about research and discussion at home. We do believe that the One True God is Greater, so yippee in declaring that.

    I would expect that educators speak in English, in the schools that my students attend, so they could understand them. But if they’re looking for an additional teaching lesson at home, I suppose they may choose an Arabic greeting. Interesting thought. In our current setting, it does seem odd though. The teachers that I know desire understanding from their students at least in the language they speak. Although, I’ve certainly had to use an English dictionary with some. haha

    It’s truly sad that we would stifle anyone wanting to wish true blessings upon our children.

    And you’re right, God doesn’t exist to bless me, but has created me to know him. Lucky me, he has blessed me and continues to do so. His Word tells me to ask his blessing on others, “for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

    Luke 6:27-36
    27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic[b] either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

    32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

    My God richly bless you.

  30. Thanks for the kind sentiment. If you say that in school, as a teacher, given a platform by the state, I will ask you to stop, as you would be misusing your public platform to promote your religion.

  31. Peace For All

    And that is one reason that I am not a teacher or government employee. People like you would be more concerned about a blessing than my ability to do my job. I’d have to be a robot instead of myself because someone might try and remove me from my job due to my natural way of saying any of the following:

    After a sneeze: God Bless You
    During a tornado, fire, school shooting: I’m praying
    In comfort: I’ll pray for you.
    Exclamation of joy: Oh praise God! or God is Good!

    I do find it sorta cool to know that I could say, to someone in that setting who was using God’s name in vain, that they are violating the first amendment and “misusing their public platform to promote their religion” by doing so. I wouldn’t sound preachy then. :) I would just be informative, expressing concern regarding the violation of my rights, and just learning from the dictators.

  32. larry kurtz

  33. larry kurtz

    [URL=http://www.sherv.net/][IMG]http://www.sherv.net/cm/emoticons/sick/barfing.gif[/IMG][/URL]

  34. Part of a teacher’s job is to follow the law and inculcate the principles of our Constitutional democracy. Teaching kids that God exists is your job at Sunday school. You pick which job you want to do, and you accept the limitations of each job.

  35. And believe me, I teach all the time under the same restrictions on my First Amendment rights, and you will not find one student who describes me as a robot. A machine, maybe, a teaching machine, but definitely not a robot.

    [But thanks for checking your e-mail. See? I haven’t said your name yet.]

  36. Bill Fleming

    Cory, I really think you’re you’re mistaken on this. Teachers don’t surrender their first amendment rights just to be able to teach do they? Further, your positions on issues aren’t “the state’s” position on issues, are they? Just because you like riding bicycles for example, or might advocate for an end to world hunger doesn’t your mean your employer does. And I certainly don’t expect everything you do and say as a teacher to be subject to an okay by the governor, and I really, really doubt that you do either.

    Quick reality check, did you confront your daughter’s classroom teacher about her “God bless” wish to you and yours? Or are you just grousing about it here on your website?

  37. Don’t forget, Peace, when Madison fired me, they chose to cite informative, non-proselytory comments I made about my religion, or more accurately, lack thereof. The Madison Central School District took the position I’m advocating even farther. The Madison Central School District would have used this “God Bless”, a stronger exhortation to faith than my simple responses to questions, as relevant information in deciding whether to terminate a contract.

    Or would they? Are we really all so generous about other faiths offering their “God Bless” equivalents? Or is “God bless” at the bottom of a public school note to parents another example of tone-deaf majoritarian privilege and the inability to really understand the discomfort of the minority?

  38. bearcreekbat

    Peace, you made an upside down and backwards comment to Cory, namely, “Why is it that you desire more government control over employees? It seems to me that, as a “teacher”, you’d want more freedom in the classroom. Then again, you seem to entertain the idea that dictatorship is the way to go.” Your comment misunderstands the benefits of the 1st amendment.

    The point of separating church and state is to weaken (not strengthen) the government’s power to advance any particular religion. Thus, if we honor the 1st amendment we do not allow any government employee to use his or her position in the government to advance any particular religious belief.

    In a dictatorship, the government dictator would not have to obey the restrictions of the Bill of Rights. That does not seem to be Cory’s position. Indeed, those who want the freedom to exercise their particular religion, whether Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, etc, etc, etc, ought to be grateful that our 1st amendment prohibits our government from establishing one particular religion.

  39. Bill, no, so far, I’m just grousing on my blog. It’s not a capital case, probably not one that I’d take past the teacher to gripe to higher levels.

    But I do think it’s an example of majoritarian insensitivity to minority sensibilities and a failure to consistently recognize one’s obligation as a teacher, an extension of the state, to scrupulously observe one’s changed position with respect to the First Amendment when enjoying that privileged position.

    Bill, I’ve had arguments about my own First Amendment rights as a teacher. I want teachers to be able to engage students in free-flowing, challenging conversations about important issues. But there are things I can say on this blog that I cannot say in my classroom.

    We can say that individuals give up First Amendment rights when they are working as public school teachers. We can say it differently: when I step into the role of public school teacher, I take on new obligations under the First Amendment. When I am a teacher, I am no longer just me; I am an arm of the state (“The State,” the government in general). As the state, I don’t get to profess a religion. I don’t get to privilege any one religion in my official actions. The moment I step out of that role—bell rings, class dismissed, talking to students and parents in community, in context that I would enjoy as easily if I were just their neighbor, not their teacher—boom, I can say, “Namaste! Come do yoga with me!” But when my opportunity to interact with students arises directly, immediately, from my position in a public institution, I cannot not act solely as an individual but as part of the state, with all the obligations the state has under the First Amendment.

  40. (Whoops—Peace lied to me, gave me a fake name on e-mail, too. Sad.)

  41. larry kurtz

    war and peas
    and miles to go
    before i sleep

  42. Donald Pay

    Cory,

    You’ve provided a useful discussion here about how difficult it is, sometimes, to be a teacher. The difference between saying “God bless” in a non-school versus a public school context is something that teachers ought to know. Teachers have to walk this line every day, if they are not going to abuse their power and infringe on the rights of their students. As you say, you want to engage in challenging discussion about challenging issues, and sometimes you have to bow to the rights of students not to hear certain gems of wisdom that you might want to bestow.

    Really, the First Amendment doesn’t apply in my workplace, either. My agency has a policy that gags me with respect to communicating with press regarding anything to do with the agency. And professional ethics that I adhere to gags me from communicating anything at all about clients I meet with, or in any way pressing my religious or political beliefs on my clients. I can communicate with them in a neutral or probative way, but I, too, must refrain from saying “God Bless.”

  43. Cory, you are in the wrong on this issue.

    The statement was not one of the teacher necessarily pushing faith on a student that could at any time throw away that note. Your reaction is actually harmful to all teachers and helps to create a hostile environment that leads to a chilling impact in the field.

    Under your level of advocacy, I could be in trouble for stating the words, “God bless you” after a student sneezes. I am a teacher and I am engaged in monitoring, then I am advocating religion? On the other hand, if a teacher discusses with students that have asked and want to engage with an educator that is an atheist and that teacher let it be known that they are an atheist, then they too should be called out? This prevents any form of honest discussion.

    Would you feel the need to call me out if as a librarian I were to suggest to a student to read a book like The Shack or even Whale Talk because the books discuss aspects of religion? These are books owned by the school and I am making the recommendation during school time. Should a teacher not allow a student to give a speech about the need for prayer in schools or the need for society to embrace a religion? Am I culpable as the educator for allowing a student to express a belief during class time?

    The mention of a religious phrase must be weighed with the consideration of the intent of the message. If the intent was to convert students to a religion, then that is wrong. If the intent was to send home an encouraging note to your daughter, not knowing the father’s or mother’s stance on religion, then the harm is negligible if any at all.

  44. I would also encourage you to consider Lemon v. Kurtzman before approaching this teacher. The test established by the Supreme court in the 1971 case provides clear the key questions that should be asked in measuring the unconstitutionality of the action in question.

    https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/403/602/case.html

    If you don’t read the Supreme Court ruling, the website Center for Public Education offers a good summary of many of the key issues.

    http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Public-education/The-law-and-its-influence-on-public-school-districts-An-overview/Religion-and-Public-Schools.html

  45. The point I didn’t see addressed is the,” I pay her wages so she shouldn’t………” That is so subjective it could be used from any angle on any person paid from the purse of government.

    Besides, Cory, you know we South Dakotans don’t pay our share anyway so Ya can’t be paying her wages.

  46. Les, yes, I spoke incautiously. It’s not my tax dollars going into her pocket that prohibit the teacher from God talk. I received taxpayer dollars as pay for substitute teaching this year, and here I am saying, “God doesn’t exist.” Whether public or private dollars, a paycheck does not by itself buy out a citizen’s free speech rights.

    But tax dollars do pay for a teacher’s position of authority and access to a captive audience of children. There’s where the First Amendment restriction comes in. On duty, conducting school business, the taxpayer-funded teacher has an obligation to refrain from promoting religion.

  47. Interesting, Donald! Remind us: do you work for a public agency?

  48. You know, MJL, when I hear kids bless each other post-sneeze, every now and then I hear a little militancy. Maybe I’m just hypersensitive. :-) But as a teacher, why not say, “Gesundheit”?

    I agree, there is a disconnect between punishing a teacher for honest intellectual discussion of atheism or any other religion and not blanching at teachers greeting students with religious expressions.

    Student expression is protected in ways that teacher expression is not. Students are not in a unique position of power. Students are not arms of the state. Teachers are arms of the state and thus take on an obligation to uphold the Establishment Clause.

  49. MJL, I’m not convinced that Lemon v. Kurtzman advances your argument or undermines mine. The Rhode Island and Pennsylvania statutes in question provided public dollars to private schools but took great pains to keep that public money from being used in non-secular courses. The Court still threw those laws out, saying they entangled the state in religion too much. I point to this key phrase:

    Under our system, the choice has been made that government is to be entirely excluded from the area of religious instruction, and churches excluded from the affairs of government. The Constitution decrees that religion must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice, and that, while some involvement and entanglement are inevitable, lines must be drawn.

    A teacher saying “God Bless” to a classroom of students is not acting as a private individual in a familial or privately chosen institutional context. That act reinforces the majority sentiment and reminds those in the minority that they are outsiders.

    The Court expressed concern about the divisiveness the statutes under review could cause. I contend that saying “God Bless” to students can be as divisive as stamping “Vote Hillary” on your missives to parents. Like Don, teachers have stuff they cannot say.

  50. The CPE page MJL links is worth reading. It backs what I say about different standards for student religious expression and teacher religious expression.

    As for applying the criteria from Lemon v. Kurtzman (I take the text from the CPE site) to saying “God Bless” to students… well, I invite your answers:

    1. Does it have a secular purpose?
    2. Does it advance or inhibit religion?
    3. Does it cause excessive entanglement with religion?

    Note that CPE says the three questions are each dealbreakers: you must answer Yes to #1 and No to #2 and #3 to pass Constitutional muster.

    Fire away!

  51. I’m with Bill F on this one. Cory you’re making way too much of it. Let Christians pray for us if they want to. A little prayin’ never hurt anyone, fake god or not, just as long as there ain’t no Satanists around doin’ it. Those guys creep me out.

  52. Cory, look at it this way. What you experienced is nothing compared to being in a confessional with a priest convicted of child molestation later. He didn’t touch me, but I sure felt icky after seeing it in the news.

  53. You are probably correct in saying that the Lemon v. Kurtz is not the best application since it is based on the idea of a district advancing religion, but it still fails when applying to the test. Yes, you have to advance to the next two questions from the first, but the first alone doesn’t show unconstitutionality.

    If the answer to the first question is yes, you proceed to questions 2 and 3. If the answer would be no, then the discussion is done.

    If the answer is no to the second and third (note the “and”; it must meet both), then it is not unconstitutional. In this case the answer to the first is yes, but the answer is no to the other two.

    If the idea was that yes to the first question was a deal breaker, then schools could not teach Anne Bradstreet, sing Hebrew songs that mention God, or offer books that reference religion or the lack of religion.

    “Each question is a hurdle to be crossed. If the answer to the first question is yes, then the case proceeds. The Court’s answer to the second and third questions must be no. If the answer is wrong at any stage, then usually an “establishment of religion” is found and the district loses. – See more at: http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Public-education/The-law-and-its-influence-on-public-school-districts-An-overview/Religion-and-Public-Schools.html#sthash.j9qEo1zU.dpuf

    If apply the other tests to the issue at hand, it is clearly not at the level of being unconstitutional. It fails the coercion test and the Felton test.

  54. Jenny, your confessional example is definitely worse than what we’re discussing here. And I won’t attempt to stop any Christian from praying for me (although I’ll recommend that, if prayer has any efficacy at all—and that’s an open question even among believers—that effort is better expended on other folks in greater need; I’m in pretty good shape!). However, I will continue to oppose having Christians abuse their privileged position as an arm of the state to promote their religion.

    Satanists creep me out, too!

  55. Hang on, MJL: I thought that a “No” answer to the first question ended the discussion: no secular purpose means fail the Lemon test and declare action unconstitutional. Am I misreading?

    What secular purpose would “God bless!” serve?

  56. My reading of it is that a “no,” meaning that there is no religious purpose, would end the discussion. Answer of “yes,” meaning that their is a religious expression involved would move it to the next stage, but not automatically declare the action unconstitutional.

    This is why a teacher could say a prayer for students before a play to his/herself or wear a necklace with a cross on it during school times. It is okay even though it would violate the first level, but it does not violate levels two and three. A teacher would not be able to lead students in prayer before a play or wear a t-shirt to school that says “God is dead, long live atheism.” because it would violate the first and second level of the Lemon test.

    If either of levels two and three are violated, then the issue may be declared unconstitutional. However; the Supreme Court uses other tests to determine constitutionality to go along with the Lemon test.

  57. MJL, am I not connecting with your words? We appear to agree: failing the first criterion—does the action serve a secular purpose?—means we don’t need to apply criteria #2 and #3 to rule the action unconstitutional. The private activity of saying a prayer to oneself isn’t in question. A public expression, acting as an arm of the state, is. The public expression in question here either serves no secular purpose (failure on criterion #1 alone) or (is this what you’re telling me?) can be easily replaced by a religion-neutral statement that does not violate #2.

    I maintain that “God bless” is as advocative as “God doesn’t exist, so bless yourselves.”