A Baltimore city school is at the center of a controversy for promoting and hosting a prayer service to encourage students to do well on state academic tests.
The Baltimore City Public School System (BCPS) and the American Civil Liberties Union are admonishing Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School for promoting a Saturday prayer service for students taking the Maryland School Assessment.
The Saturday prayer was also held inside the school building.
BCPS issued the statement, "It is not appropriate for public institutions of education to promote any particular religious practice."
The ACLU also denounced the event as a Constitutional violation of the separation of church and state.
The controversy began with a flier inviting faculty, students and parents to pray and "ask God to bless our school to pass the MSA." The flyer also featured a Bible verse and phrases, "All things are possible," and "Only Believe."
ACLU attorney David Rocah criticized the Tench Tilghman flier for the prayer event by saying it was "conveying a religious message." He also said the prayer meeting excludes those who do not believe that message.
"They send a message of exclusion to people who are not of the particular faith or of any faith at all," Rocah told Baltimore local television channel WJZ-CBS.
The school's principal, Jael Yon, and school officials said the goal of the meeting was not to exclude people or promote a religious view. The purpose of the community prayer event, they contended, was to motivate and encourage the students to do well.
The MSA is a test of reading and math achievement designed to meet the testing requirements of the federal "No Child Left Behind Act." The test is given each year in early March in the subjects of reading and math for grades 3 through 8.
Jimmy Gittings, head of the Baltimore principals' union, said he supports Yon's actions. Gittings also expressed that the removal of prayer from public schools nearly 50 years ago has led to a decline in the respect for teachers and administrators.
On the day of the March 5 event, WJZ reported that dozens of parents and children attended the service in support of the principal's efforts.
BCPS officials, however, said they will be reviewing the details surrounding the prayer event to clarify school policy on future prayer events.