- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2000

June 8, 1998, was a sad day for P.S. 74, a middle school in New York's blighted South Bronx section. A student, Christopher Lee, had drowned. Speaking over the public address system, the principal asked the school to observe a moment of silence in Christopher's memory.

In Mildred Rosario's sixth-grade class, the moment of silence led to questions. Luisa Corporan, 11, asked Rosario where Christopher Lee was. “He is in heaven,” the teacher explained. Other students pursued the matter, asking, “What is heaven like?” and “What does God look like?”

Rosario's response was to ask those students who did not wish to discuss God to move to the back of the room, near the computer. Reports suggest that two boys did so. With the rest of the class assembled, Rosario, a Pentecostalist, asked again whether this “was something voluntarily free will.” She then proceeded to tell the children that Jesus had come into the world to save humanity and asked which of her students would like “to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior.” Most of the students must have agreed because Rosario walked up and down the aisles placing her hands of each child's head and praying with them in Spanish.

When word of Rosario's altar call got around, there was a fuss. Some of the parents objected — though many, perhaps most, stood by Rosario. The Board of Education was in an uproar. There was a disciplinary hearing but only one. Rosario was a substitute teacher without tenure; accordingly, she was not equipped with the asbestos shield that is standard issue for tenured teachers. After a few questions, the board issued its decision — she was fired.

Rosario's story ignited the fax lines in Washington, D.C., where conservative politicians smelled an outrage. A teacher who prays with her students gets fired, they fumed, while a member of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) is merely transferred! With drugs and crime stalking our schools, they continued, how in the world can they justify firing a teacher for praying?

These are familiar arguments to me, I've made them myself countless times. I agree with the social conservatives that the rigid exclusion of religion from public life is neither constitutionally demanded nor politically healthy. I further agree that condom distribution, some kinds of sex education, and values-clarification curricula — all of which are blessed by school boards around the nation — amount to the imposition of a worldview that is much less benign than Christianity.

But Rosario's case is just too far over the line to serve as a cause celebre.

If she had merely told her class that Christopher Lee was in heaven, there would have been no controversy. If she had even expressed her personal religious conviction that Jesus Christ represents the world's salvation — no problem. After all, it was a moment that cried out for some spiritual expression. Where Rosario stepped over the line was in summoning the children to make their own religious commitments then and there. That is the province of the church — with parents present — not the school.

Some of the Republican politicians who declared Rosario a heroine pointed out that another New York City teacher who was discovered to be a member of NAMBLA had been merely transferred to a desk job, not fired. It is a twisted standard that seems to regard Christianity as more threatening to children than pedophilia, they argued. But the facts don't really stretch that far.

The NAMBLA teacher was moved out of the classroom and out of contact with children. And Rosario was fired only after she refused to refrain in the future from proselytizing. Clearly, the fates of the two should have been reversed, but Rosario's defiance damaged her case.

Rosario frightens not just the church/state separation fanatics but also reasonable parents who do not wish to see a teacher usurp their proper role in the religious training of their children. Moments of silence, even non-denominational prayers, in public schools seem to be well within the limits contemplated by the Constitution. But Rosario is a quite sectarian preacher. As such, she is a poor model for those who wish to restore some sanity and balance to the church/state separation debate.

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