Religious groups for secularism castigate Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville for his “rant over prayer in school”

Two groups that promote religious secularism attack Republicans Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville’s inaugural address to the Senate in which the former college football coach advocated bringing “God and prayer back to schools”.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation and Washington, DC-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State released statements on Tuesday condemning the first-year senator for falsely suggesting that prayer had been withdrawn from American public schools. They also criticized him for not taking what they believe to be a more serious approach to improving education.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, called Tuberville’s speech an “aggressive attack” on the constitutional principles of church-state separation and guarantees of peace. religious freedom.

She said Tuberville’s speech was meant to appeal to his supporters in Alabama, where more than three-quarters of the state’s residents said in a Pew Research Center survey that religion is “very important” in their lives.

“If Senator Tuberville is serious about improving education, he should devote his energy to ensuring that all children have access to adequately funded, high quality public education,” said Laser. “The rants on prayer in school may play well with its base of supporters at home, but they are doing nothing to help our children.”

The FFFR, in a press release, called Tuberville a “newly elected Christian nationalist” who “gets it wrong in school prayer”. The group also accused Tuberville of instituting unconstitutional chaplaincies at four of its training stops: Mississippi, Auburn, Texas Tech and Cincinnati.

Tuberville, in a statement to AL.com, said that “faith and moral values ​​are fundamental to our great country. I will always oppose those who try to lessen the positive influence of prayer and morality on young Americans.

Prayer in schools

Tuberville, in his first Senate speech, pledged to support the establishment of “moral values” and prayer in schools, although he did not elaborate. He said that children need structure and that they “have to learn right from wrong”. He then said the country’s low scores in reading, science and math compared to other countries were “unacceptable”.

The FFRF, in its press release, said Tuberville “is ridiculously wrong” to suggest that more religion is the solution to low scores in science.

“Religion has historically inhibited scientific progress, insisting that gaps in our scientific knowledge must be filled by dogma rather than evidence based on reason,” the press release said. “From the heliocentric model of the solar system to evolution, religion has always been there to condemn the quest for scientific truth and progress. “

The organization then criticized “politicians like Tuberville” who reject science.

“Tuberville should reflect on the fact that the countries that have overtaken the United States in terms of academics are, on the whole, much less religious,” the statement said.

FFRF and Americans United for Separation of Church and State both agreed that Tuberville’s comments misinterpret the reality of prayer within schools.

Said Dan Barker, FFRF Co-Chair, “As long as there are pop math quizzes, there will be prayer in public schools.”

Michael Altman, professor of religious studies at the University of Alabama, said the FFRF is correct in that students are “free to pray,” noting that there are many student-led prayer groups. in schools in Alabama and the United States.

The United States Supreme Court nearly 60 years ago ruled public school prayer unconstitutional.

“There’s really nothing Tommy Tuberville can do to change that, but I don’t think that’s the point,” said Altman. “The argument that removing prayer from schools has led to poor academic performance is a duck (unfounded rumor) made by conservative lawmakers who are unwilling to point out the real culprits like systemic inequalities and cuts to funding for the state. But he’s a duck that works with Republican voters, so it persists.

He added, “The idea of ​​’God and prayer’ in schools, in my opinion, is more of a symbol than a real policy. It’s a phrase that symbolizes a return to how the country and the state were in the 1950s. ”

He said Tuberville was exploiting the desire to return to an era that pre-dates the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in the 1960s on teacher-led prayer and school Bible reading.

“For voters, especially conservative white voters, ‘God and prayer in schools’ symbolizes a time when they were in the social, economic and cultural ascendancy,” Altman said.

Past criticism of the FFRF

The FFRF has criticized Tuberville in the past and cited him as part of an “unnatural alliance” that has prompted university-sponsored chaplains to “prey on student-athletes”.

The group, in a report published in 2015said Tuberville and former Florida State University football head coach Bobby Bowden, as well as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, “spawned many modern college football chaplaincies” that are present in most places today. Southeastern Conference schools.

The organization said the spread of chaplaincies in state-funded institutions was “a lack of respect for the Constitution.” According to the report, one of Tuberville’s “first steps” after being hired at Auburn in 1999 was to bring in a team chaplain who led the players to be baptized, carry Bibles and carry crosses. in wood. Under Tuberville’s direction, the report also notes, a training camp for team chaplains and an internship program for them were held in Auburn.

The FFRF, in its statement, accused Tuberville of wanting to “inflict its brand of religious rituals” on all public school students, “as he demonstrated when he was a football coach.”

The FFRF’s criticism of Tuberville isn’t the first time the group has been forceful against an Alabama lawmaker, trainer or school when it comes to praying in a public place.

In early 2020, the group and former US representative Bradley Byrne, then a candidate for the Senate, clashed with FFRF’s request for a Tallapoosa County School District investigation into a baptism that took place on a high school football field. The baptism took place in the presence of a head football coach and other school staff, while parents and students watched.

Byrne said he was not going to let the FFRF “intimidate” the high school football coach and called the organization a “radical atheist group”. The FFRF responded by calling Byrne’s reactions “blatant” and “un-American”.

In 2019, the FFRF repeatedly called for religious rituals that took place in public schools in Alabama, including more baptisms on the football field and an “back-to-school worship service.” at Fyffe high school.

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