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Dialog Over School Prayer, Violence, and Spanking Children

A Christian critic (italics) wrote in to complain and Internet Infidel
Bill Schultz responds:

In light of the recent shooting in Santee, California let’s see, I think
it started when Madeline Murray O’Hare complained she didn’t want any prayer in
our schools, and we said OK.

No, it did not “start” with Madalyn Murray-O’Hair. In fact, she was
a bit of a “Johnnie-come-lately” to the cause of removing teacher-led
prayer from our public schools. I summarize the true state of affairs in my
piece at: https://infidels.org/library/modern/bill_schultz/scotus_law.html#LSP.
The beginning of the end for state-enforced school prayer was in West Virginia
State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 63 S.Ct. 1178 (June 14,
1943), where the majority wrote this benchmark of First Amendment jurisprudence
(which ought to be placed on a poster next to any display of the Ten
Commandments, “In God We Trust,” or similar nonsense):

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is
that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in
politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens
to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances
which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”‘


The above sentence was written by the great Justice Jackson, with the
concurrence of Chief Justice Harlan Stone and Justices Black, Douglas, Murphy,
and Rutledge (a 6-3 decision). You can’t blame Earl Warren or the Warren Court
for that statement of principle!

But it was more than two decades later before the above principle would guide
the Supreme Court on matters of school prayer. In Engel v. Vitale, 370
U.S. 421 (June 25, 1962), In that case, the Warren Court struck down an official
government prayer for school children to recite each day, holding “that the
constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion
must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of
government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to
recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.” Madalyn
Murray-O’Hair had absolutely nothing at all with this decision, which banned
state composed prayer from public schools.

Once again, the Supreme Court stood for the principle that it was no business
of school officials “high or petty” to “prescribe what shall be
orthodox in … religion.” I frankly cannot understand why any member of
any religious group would object to this! Certainly, the history of this nation
runs red with sectarian violence between the Catholics and the Protestants, much
as it still does now in Northern Ireland. For more background material on these
battles, please refer to this web page on the American Atheists web site: ‘

Certainly, the story of how the Mormons were run out of the
“civilized” portion of the United States, and off into the
“wilderness” of Utah, is no shining example of religious tolerance in
our history.

Should you think that this sort of battle could not break out today, just
look at the disgust expressed by dissident religious leaders over the
fundamentalism preached at memorial services after the Columbine incident: ‘

Engel v. Vitale was brought by “the parents of ten pupils”
in New York schools. As the Supreme Court writes in the Engel decision:

It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing
governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons
which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious
freedom in America. The Book of Common Prayer, which was created under
governmental direction and which was approved by Acts of Parliament in 1548 and
1549, set out in minute detail the accepted form and content of prayer and other
religious ceremonies to be used in the established, tax-supported Church of
England. The controversies over the Book and what should be its content
repeatedly threatened to disrupt the peace of that country as the accepted forms
of prayer in the established church changed with the views of the particular
ruler that happened to be in control at the time. Powerful groups representing
some of the varying religious views of the people struggled among themselves to
impress their particular views upon the Government and obtain amendments of the
Book more suitable to their respective notions of how religious services should
be conducted in order that the official religious establishment would advance
their particular religious beliefs. Other groups, lacking the necessary
political power to influence the Government on the matter, decided to leave
England and its established church and seek freedom in America from England’s
governmentally ordained and supported religion.

To those who may subscribe to the view that because the Regents’ official
prayer is so brief and general there can be no danger to religious freedom in
its governmental establishment, however, it may be appropriate to say in the
words of James Madison, the author of the First Amendment:

“[I]t is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.
. . . Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity,
in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any
particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same
authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his
property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to
any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”


It is that heritage which led to the language of the First Amendment, to the
effect that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That we are so little
plagued with religiously-inspired violence is due in no small part to this
prohibition against majoritarian religious orthodoxy.

By the way, Madalyn O’Hair had nothing at all to do with the Engel v. Vitale
decision. Her case (Murray v. Curlett) came up a year later and was 1 of 2 cases
responsible for the banning of organized Bible reading which involved simply
rote recitation and no amount of critical thinking. The companion case, because
it involved a full trial on the merits, ended up giving its name to the eventual
decision: Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (June 17, 1963). It
struck down laws and practices allowing or requiring Bible readings, prayers,
and other religious exercises during the official opening ceremonies for each
school day, holding that “as the state cannot forbid, neither can it
perform or aid in performing the religious function.”

The Radical Religious Right oh so frequently forgets the FIVE KEY WORDS from
the above sentence:

“AS THE STATE CANNOT FORBID, neither can it perform or aid in performing
the religious function.”


Bibles and prayers were by no means prohibited from schools. The only
prohibition is against state actors (teachers, principals, etc.)
“performing the religious function.”

In 1995, the Department of Education (a federal cabinet-level institution)
issued a set of guidelines for the performance of religious functions on school
property. Those guidelines were updated and changed in minor ways three years
later, and (so far as I know) are still in force under the Bush administration.
They are available on the web at:

READ THAT WHOLE WEB PAGE (above). Here are a couple of key quotes:

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not prohibit purely
private religious speech by students. Students therefore have the same right to
engage in individual or group prayer and religious discussion during the school
day as they do to engage in other comparable activity.

Generally, students may pray in a nondisruptive manner when not engaged in
school activities or instruction, and subject to the rules that normally pertain
in the applicable setting.

Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach
about religion, including the Bible or other scripture: the history of religion,
comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as- literature, and the
role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries all are
permissible public school subjects. Similarly, it is permissible to consider
religious influences on art, music, literature, and social studies.

Students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework,
artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on
the religious content of their submissions.

Students have a right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates
on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature that is
unrelated to school curriculum or activities.

Any school which denies any child their rights under the above guidelines has
violated the civil rights of that child. All of us should be upset when civil
rights violations occur, no matter the identity of the victim. All I ask for is
that the prohibitions contained in the above-mentioned guidelines receive equal
attention to the permissions I’ve quoted, above.

Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school…. the Bible
that says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as
yourself. And we said, OK.

No, we did NOT say “OK” to this or anything like this. What we said
“NO” to was the idea that the government could pick the particular
version of the Bible to read and then force all students to read from THAT
VERSION of the Bible, AND NO OTHER. That was the issue for Abington School
District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (June 17, 1963).

Again, the history of this sort of dispute runs deep into the history of our
nation, as Madalyn Murray-O’Hair wrote in her essay, mentioned above: ‘

The government can’t get into the business of picking an official holy
scripture (some Muslims, of course, would prefer to read from the Koran rather
than the Jewish or Christian scriptures). But on the other hand, it is wrong to
read this decision as a prohibition against having a Bible in school.

Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they
misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage
their self-esteem. And we said, an expert should know what he’s talking about so
we said OK, we won’t spank them anymore.

The problem isn’t “spanking.” The real problem is
“beating.” The law says that you cannot BEAT your children. It does
not say you cannot SPANK your children.

Unfortunately, far too many parents do not seem to know the difference
between a “spanking” and a “beating.” When they step over
the line and beat their kids, the law should step in and try to do something. In
those cases where people look the other way at “a little spanking,”
people get incensed about inaction when eventually some kid turns up beaten to

I must hope with my most sincere heart that you are not advocating beating
kids to death, which was an acceptable punishment in the Old Testament. I would
sincerely hope that we are beyond beating kids into the hospital or death for
any and all reasons.

Only those adults who can’t tell the difference between “spanking”
and “beating” need to avoid “spanking,” and there, such
avoidance is for the eventual good of everyone, since parents locked in prison
for killing their kids will do no good for anybody (society or themselves).

Then someone said teachers and principals better not discipline our
children when they misbehave. And the school administrators said no faculty
member in this school better touch a student when they misbehave because we
don’t want any bad publicity, and we surely don’t want to be sued. (There’s a
big difference between disciplining and touching, beating, smacking,
humiliating, kicking, etc. And we accepted their reasoning.

I’m not at all certain what is meant by this statement. Certainly, it is
totally false that “teachers and principals” can’t “discipline
our children when they misbehave.” Discipline has gotten stricter, overall,
in recent years, what with so-called “zero tolerance policies.”

Is the above meant to imply that beating, humiliating, and kicking kids ought
to be acceptable conduct by “teachers and principals” in our schools?
Again, I surely hope not!

The whole business about “touching” kids comes from the tendency of
parents to fear sexual abuse of their kids by teachers and other school
employees. Perhaps if parents (and kids) were a bit more rational about drawing
lines of distinction between acceptable touching and improper touching, we would
not need outright bans. But just as some people can’t draw the proper line
between spanking (legal) and beating (illegal), so too some people can’t draw
the line between acceptable and unacceptable sorts of touching of their kids.
And after all, its usually the reactions of the parents which cause the most
damage to the kids. (The overall factual consensus is that nothing at all
happened at the McMartin preschool in California. However, the lives of most of
those kids were ruined by the reactions of the adults surrounding those kids,
who caused those kids to feel victimized, even though nothing at all had
actually happened. The emotional reaction to being a pariah are the same whether
or not the actual underlying events are real.)

Then someone said, let’s let our daughters have abortions if they want,
and they won’t even have to tell their parents. And we said, that’s a grand
idea. Then some wise school board member said, since boys will be boys and
they’re going to do it anyway, let’s give our sons all the condoms they want, so
they can have all the fun they desire, and we won’t have to tell their parents
they got them at school. And we said, that’s another great idea.

First off, this is factually erroneous in many states since the parents of
minor females are generally involved; or if they are not, then there must be a
court order permitting the abortion. If a girl is 18 or older, she is an adult
and at that point, her sex life is no business of her parents.

Condoms are dispensed at school because it is accurate that kids are going to
have sex with or without condoms, so we have a choice of allowing an epidemic of
venereal disease to propagate like wildfire through the sexually active
population of our schools or we can make disease prevention available, along
with the knowledge of how to use those disease prevention devices (like

If “just say no” actually worked, we wouldn’t need the condoms in
schools. Its because “just say no” has NEVER worked down through all
of history that we find ourselves needing to progress beyond teaching abstinence
as the sole method of birth control and disease prevention. In point of fact,
the recent conservative efforts to curtail these programs of sex education and
distribution of birth control devices at school is leading to exactly the sort
of epidemic consequences which you might expect: http://www.msnbc.com/news/529857.asp.’

There is an old saying, which I thought was attributed to Tom Lehrer (but I
was recently unable to verify that), which goes like this:

“If Booth Tarkington wrote Seventeen today, he’d have to call it

A century or two ago, young girls “came of age” about 17, and got
married at about that same time, so it was no big deal to tell them to wait
until they were married to think about sex. (In the Victorian era, women were
not supposed to enjoy sex anyway, so again, it was no big deal.) Now, doctors
are a bit worried that girls as young as 7, 8, or 9 (particularly young black
girls) are developing breasts and pubic hair. See: http://www.msnbc.com/news/486352.asp

So it should be no surprise, then, that sexual activity is picking up in the
“under-15 set” (as noted by the http://www.msnbc.com/news/529857.asp
article). Where overactive hormones meet a lack of education and the general
feelings of invulnerability of teens and younger kids, alarming increases in
pregnancies and disease ought to be expected.

What the http://www.msnbc.com/news/529857.asp
article shows, however, is that we’re succeeding to at least some degree in
battling pregnancy, but we need to do more, since kids have simply modified
their behavior to lower their risk for AIDS and pregnancy. We need to open up
communications about other sexually transmitted diseases.

And, the radical religious right has to stop combating birth control as if it
were essentially a “pre-abortion.” The Roman Catholic Church has this
attitude against contraception. But the Catholics also see nothing wrong with
marrying kids off at a very young age and expecting them to go right into the
baby-making business, so I’d hardly trust the Catholic party line on sexuality
when it comes to setting up public policy.

Then some of our top elected officials said it doesn’t matter what we do
in private as long as we do our jobs. And agreeing with them, we said it doesn’t
matter to me what anyone, including the President, does in private as long as I
have a job and the economy is good.

Should I therefore take it that you are actually in favor of our government
hiring a lot of “bedroom police” to spy on exactly what it is that
everybody does in the privacy of their own bedroom, just to make certain that
nobody does anything which anybody out here in society at large feels is
immoral? Should my wife and I be arrested for having oral sex, since some people
feel that violates a Biblical commandment? Would YOU want a TV camera
permanently mounted everywhere that you might go, just like in the book and
movie, 1984? Would YOU want to be arrested and prosecuted for every indiscretion
in YOUR life?

If you value your own personal privacy, then why shouldn’t the President have
his own personal privacy too? And if you don’t value your own personal privacy,
then I have to ask: why not? It is one of the most cherished attributes of
modern human life!

Why should being elected President deprive somebody of all of their own
personal privacy? I don’t think it should!

And then someone said let’s print magazines with pictures of nude women
and call it wholesome, down-to-earth appreciation for the beauty of the female
body. And we said we have no problem with that.

Photography is a fairly recent invention. Have you ever been to a museum of
art? Try a painting by Boticelli, like the Birth of Venus: http://www.geocities.com/akirkov/gallery/boticelli/14.htm.
Or Salvador Dali’s version of Leda with the swan, staring Dali’s wife: http://www.geocities.com/akirkov/gallery/dali/ledatomi.htm.
Those paintings are six centuries apart in time, and feature about equally nude
women. The ancient Greeks used nudes for the bulk of their art, and they don’t
seem to have suffered much from that sort of “exposure.” I think that
somebody is jumping to conclusions here…… and its not me!

And someone else took that appreciation a step further and published
pictures of nude children and then stepped further still by making them
available on the internet. And we said they’re entitled to there free speech.

No, this is FALSE!

Few things will get you into jail faster than distributing pictures of naked
kids over the Internet. In fact, it would appear to me that the law enforcement
authorities have gone a bit too far, what with their arrest and prosecution of a
mom who took some pictures of her young daughter in the bathtub. Those pictures
were for her private album, and were not in any way distributed. (The photo
developer called in the police based upon “nude kid pictures.”) I’m
one of those who feel that the authorities have gone too far with this whole
suppression of “kiddie porn” business. But I know few who would
eliminate all controls in favor of the “free speech” position
discussed above!

And the entertainment industry said, let’s make TV shows and movies that
promote profanity, violence, and illicit sex. And let’s record music that
encourages rape, drugs, murder, suicide, and satanic themes. And we said it’s
just entertainment, it has no adverse effect, and nobody takes it seriously
anyway, so go right ahead.

No, this is not correct. The worst examples of this sort of thing are in rap
music, which if more people actually listened to rap music, it would probably
get banned.

Thee are well-established limits to free speech. You don’t have a
“right” to spout out false facts. You don’t have a “free speech
right” to shout “fire” in a crowded theater where there is no
fire. You don’t have any “free speech right” to libel or slander
anybody. And “obscenity” is clearly not subject to free speech
protections (so says the US Supreme Court).

There isn’t a one of those themes (rape, drugs, murder, suicide, and satanic
themes) which I would personally advocate as “protected speech.” If it
isn’t brought into court, its because no showing has been made of a causal
connection between the advocacy of criminal activity and any overt act in
pursuit of said criminal activity (which is what must be shown to obtain a
conviction for “conspiracy” to commit the crime).

As for suicide and/or “satanic themes,” I don’t feel these should
be illegal, but I do feel that anybody who engages in that sort of thing is
mentally ill and ought to be helped.

Few people advocate protecting the encouragement of those sorts of things.
But its precisely because it is so difficult to prove a causal connection
between “music that encourages rape, drugs, murder, suicide, and satanic
themes” that such things don’t receive more attention from law enforcement
officers, who do tend to be on the conservative side of the political spectrum,
after all.

Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they
don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers,
their classmates, and themselves. Probably, if we think about it long and hard
enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with “WE

Frankly, I’m personally of the opinion that it has a lot to do with the rise
of fundamentalism in our nation. Fundamentalists focus on such a narrow message
(of being “born again,” “knowing Jesus,” and thus being
“guaranteed life after death”) that this sort of preaching ends up
encouraging people to commit violent acts. I’m very troubled in this regard
about a suicide note left by a woman who drove herself and her three kids into
the Missouri river to their deaths. She did it to settle a bitter divorce action
and to deprive her husband of any further contact with her kids. She was so
certain that her innocent little kids would go with her immediately to Heaven,
that she was willing to commit suicide and their murder to get away from her
husband, who was apparently winning in the court action between them.

The media is overly friendly towards fundamentalism, and tends to play down
the religious connections of people who commit atrocities such as that suicidal
woman I referred to, above. And the media is all too ready to accuse kids who
commit atrocities of being “Satanists” or “devil worshipers”
when it is highly likely that none of these kids ever thought once about
worshiping Satan in their whole lives.

Children have a natural feeling of immortality. Fundamentalism feeds that
feeling of immortality, and also fails to instill moral behavior because it does
not teach moral nuances. By placing all “sin” into the same category,
it wrongly fails to classify minor transgressions differently from major wrongs.
So, when a kid goes on a shooting spree in school, they will do so under the
belief that they won’t really die; that God will take care of anybody who is
killed; and that a High School shooting spree is no worse of a transgression
than taking the Lord’s name in vain (both are “sins” in the eyes of
the fundamentalists).

It isn’t that we don’t teach right from wrong, its that we don’t teach the
difference between an error of manners and an unforgivable breach of social
rules (i.e., murder; to an atheist, a murder is the most unforgivable of
actions, since it ends a life forever).

Dear God,

Why didn’t you save the little girl in Michigan?

Concerned Student


Dear Concerned Student,

I am not allowed in schools.


Once again, THIS IS TOTALLY FALSE!!!!! Please read, again, the Department of
Education guidelines!

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the
world’s going to hell.

Atheists are among the most moral of people. There are fewer atheists, per
capita, in prisons than there are of any other religion. “Trashing
God” and morality aren’t necessarily connected (although they could be, if
the person was predisposed to immorality in the first place and saw God as the
impediment to “breaking loose”).

Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible

All sources of information ought to be questioned. Most Christians teach that
you question what the Bible says in order to learn its true message. You ought
to treat a common newspaper with even greater questioning in order to learn ITS
true message!

Funny how everyone wants to go to heaven provided they do not have to
believe, think, say, or do anything the Bible says. This is FALSE; at least
among intelligent people. Sure, there might be a few idiots out there who
believe this, but I think that all intelligent people understand exactly what
the bargain offered by Christianity entails.

Personally, if the folks who are all convinced that THEY are going to go to
Heaven are anything like the folks who are actually there, then I for one will
welcome going to Hell, where most of my friends and the people I respect and
would wish to spend eternity with will be located.

But frankly, I don’t believe in any sort of immortality, and I think that
belief in Heaven is one of the things you must discard in order to ultimately
discard your belief in God. After all, Heaven is the one major reward that
belief in God has to offer. If you take that reward away, then what reason do we
have to believe?

Funny how someone can say, “I believe in God” but still follow
Satan who, by the way, also “believes” in God.

Not even all Christians believe in God.

And the “followers of Satan” are all too frequently just whomever
you disagree with at the moment (like me, for instance). I don’t follow Satan by
any means. I rejected Satan along with belief in the Christian God. But of
course, fundamentalist Christians like to call any who disagree with them
“followers of Satan.” Can’t you see this for the insidious emotional
blackmail that it is?

Funny how we are quick to judge but not to be judged.

Now, this is a good one. We all ought to think about this one…….

Funny how you can send a thousand ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread
like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people
think twice about sharing.

Spam is still spam, even if its “the word of the Lord.” I received
over a thousand e-mails from some jerk who was absolutely convinced that the
world was going to end due to the Y2K business. Well, here we are over a year
later, and I’m still waiting for the world to end. People will share something
if they think its a meme worth passing on. If they don’t pass on a religious
message, then its a bad meme. If its filled with lies, falsehood, and
distortions of the truth, as this spam was, I can understand how many would balk
at passing it on.

Funny how the lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene pass freely through
Cyberspace, but the public discussion of Jesus is suppressed in the school and

This is a false comparison.

First, most companies do not allow “lewd, crude, vulgar and
obscene” materials to pass into their corporate systems. I work for a major
company who has a filter on its Internet connection. I don’t even try to send
“lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene” materials to or from my work e-mail
account. But I receive no end of religious prattle here at my home e-mail
account, largely because my e-mail address is publicly posted on my web pages.

It is also false that “public discussion of Jesus is suppressed in the
school and workplace.” Please again see the Department of Education
guidelines, above. As for the workplace, I’ve seen and heard lots of discussion
of Jesus; just not “in public.” The place I work isn’t in the business
of pushing the message of Jesus. Its in business to sell its particular
products. So it has no particular reason to foster any “public discussion
of Jesus” in the workplace. Also, since the laws require companies to take
action against religious discrimination and the creation of “hostile work
environments,” any company will naturally limit the “public discussion
of Jesus” in its workplace.

Lets put the shoe on the other foot and ask how Christians would feel about
Muslim Ayatollahs visiting our schools and workplaces to preach to the children,
employees, and customers. Would you care to hear that the Muslims are perfectly
convinced that all Christians are going to Hell? Would you care if they told
your kids that if they didn’t quickly convert, they would go to Hell as well?
Would you care if you knew that the Muslims promise their converts many sexual
fantasies in the Islamic version of Heaven? Is that the sort of thing we ought
to be preaching to teens with overactive hormones?

If you can’t accept Muslims trying to convert your Christian kids to Islamic
beliefs, then don’t go around bemoaning the fact that schools and businesses put
limits on your efforts to proselytize your own Christian beliefs. If its not
equal access, its not fair. If you wish to live in a religious theocracy, please
remove yourself to some other country — NOW!!

Funny how someone can be so fired up for Christ on Sunday, but be an
invisible Christian the rest of the week.

I think this is fundamentalist blather. There are some Catholics where I
work, and they are pretty obvious about their faith. The crucifix hanging on the
chain around the neck is a dead giveaway. But of course, Catholics aren’t
fundamentalists. And they’ve been in the “minority” in America for
long enough to have respect for others in schools and workplaces. There are good
reasons to not proselytize on work time, not the least of which is the fact that
the company you work for isn’t paying you to do that; and the other good reason
is that you might upset some important customers who don’t happen to be
receptive to a fundamentalist Christian message.

Are you laughing?

NO!! There is way too much fundamentalist prejudice in this message.

Funny how when you go to forward this message, you will not send it to
many on your address list because you’re not sure what they believe, or what
they will think of you for sending it to them.

If I send this to others, it will be only as a bad example of a poor meme
which ought to quickly die since it propagates so much hatred and false ideas.

Funny how I can be more worried about what other people think of me than
what God thinks of me.

I doubt that most people ever let this idea even enter their brain. Even when
I used to be a Christian, I didn’t think of such things. Of course, these days,
I don’t worry a bit about what the Christian God thinks because I know that God
is nothing but myth!

Are you thinking?

YES! And what I’m thinking is that a real nut-case drafted the original of
this e-mail.

Pass it on if you think it has merit! If not then just discard it….no
one will ever know what you did, for sure.

A nice trick ending to get this blather passed on. But this doesn’t alter one
iota of the libel upon which it is based. God has not been expelled from school.
Instead, fundamentalism has expelled reason from public discourse.

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