Offended by prayer on a mural

In Cranston, RI there is a lawsuit about a mural depicting a school-sanctioned prayer. The image of the mural is here:

Mural of School Prayer

The student was offended by having this prayer here, and some Christians I have spoken to say it’s not a big deal, it’s a historical object, it’s message is a nice academic one, etc… Further, they claim that a student being offended by it isn’t enough reason to remove it. Some students are offended by evolution in biology class, and we don’t remove that, for example. However, the Establishment Clause of the Constitution clearly states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. Christians will point to this mural and state that it is generically religious, and thus is not the establishment of any particular religion.

When I first read this mural, I was immediately offended by it, as a message in a public institution educating children. It establishes a clear bias towards the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) by referring to “Heavenly Father”. Buddhism doesn’t have this, neither does Hinduism, or Paganism, or etc…. not to mention atheists. The message itself is actually very nice, so why not do the easiest thing: Block out, in as unobtrusive way possible, the “Heavenly father” and the “Amen”, and simply call it the School Doctrine, or School Message, or some other innocuous phrase. Even calling it a prayer is not so bad in my book, as long as there isn’t a clear bias towards a particular religion. I wonder if the student tried to do that. It would seem to be a straightforward solution, that a school system might consider, in order to keep itself out of a lawsuit on the issue.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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3 Responses to Offended by prayer on a mural

  1. Some points:

    Point #1:
    Religion has been with us for a very, very long time. Most of our classic literature and art, and all of our history, is saturated with it. We should not pretend things didn’t happen the way they did. We shouldn’t say that our ancestors’ words and actions were worthless because they didn’t know what we know. And above all, we shouldn’t start censoring them. That way lies madness.

    Point #2:
    “Ahlquist has been an atheist since age 10”? Really? My, my, six whole years! And what informed little Jessica’s atheism at age 10, I wonder? But regardless, now she’s matured to the ripe age of 16. She’s had six years to think deeply about the issues and come to her own conclusions. Of course she has. And now she’s deeply offended by a cultural icon that’s been hanging in her high school since her grandfather was her age. By all means it should promptly be torn down.

    Nonsense. Let Jessica look upon the mural as a history lesson. Teach her what it is, who wrote it and why, Why was it formed as a prayer? What was Rhode Island like then, how did people think?

    If we black out the “Dear Heavenly Father” and “Amen”, we are losing that history lesson. And worse, we are setting ourselves up as history’s censors. Next we remove the “n” word from Tom Sawyer (surely THAT will offend some of our wise 16-year-olds). Is that Michaelangelo in the art room? Take it out! Books referencing black servants in the library? Get them out (or, better yet, let some hack rewrite the classics with all the “bad” stuff removed! What a great idea!).

    Point #3:
    Let’s face it, 16-year-old kids are easily offended. Mine snapped at me this morning because I hadn’t cleaned and folded his laundry quickly enough to provide him his favorite jeans again (nevermind that I wash and fold all his clothes, and there was a drawer full of freshly washed – but less-favored – clothing in his room). God forbid that we ever offend one of them. Oh no! There I said it again! Forgive me, dear, wise children!

  2. brianblais says:

    Yes, I agree about teens. My guess is that she is the point person, probably encouraged by others. I’m not big on lawsuits, and I think my compromise is not completely unreasonable.

    As for history, that does seem to be the primary argument on the other side. However, it’s the same argument used to keep the ten commandments in courtrooms. My point is that there are many other people, other than Christians, attending the school and we are paying for it with taxpayer dollars. I, for one, do not like to see a prominent, biased, religious message when I go into a public institution, history or no. It’s divisive, at the least. If the mural were in an archive of the school, fine. If it were part of a larger lesson about the school history, no problem. If it is in a prominent place, implying an endorsement by the school itself, then I have a problem.

    Tom Sawyer is discussed as literature, in the context of a classroom. If they decided to post a page of Tom Sawyer in a mural, with the n-word, without the context then, yes, I’d have a problem – and you’d bet you’d have jobs on the line for that too.

  3. They should leave the prayer up. She should be taught the value of learning from her own history. The school should not have to break a long-held tradition because of her lack of appreciation for these things.

    She should not be taught that by “taking offense” in other people’s actions she can weild power over others.

    In short, she should be taught the wisdom of the following very true statement (and by learning it, and where it comes from, maybe learn a little humility): “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.”

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