Keeping prayer out of schools is the real blessing

MIKE LITTWIN

May 24, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

The subject is religion. So, of course, somebody is angry. It was ever thus.

Look at the hot spots around the world and see what they have in common. The Middle East. Bosnia. Northern Ireland.

In these places, religion is often destiny. Every day we see people blow up other people in the name of their God, and it's hard for us to figure out why.

But even America has its religious wars. They're usually fought in the relatively peaceful setting of the Supreme Court.

In the most recent case, the court found that the traditional religious blessing at public high school graduation ceremonies is no longer legal.

Yes, some people are upset.

For many, this is another example of the court -- stacked though it is with Reaganites -- big-footing its way into our personal lives.

A nonsectarian blessing surely seems harmless enough. They've been saying these prayers for a hundred years and more, and yet the republic still stands.

One school might offer a priest, another a rabbi, a third a minister. The next year, they'd probably switch. It's not like anyone is trying to impose a particular religion on high school students.

The prayer simply asks God's blessing for these young people as they take the next step in their lives.

These days, that next step could be a dangerous one. When has there been a time when young people were more in need of our prayers?

The issue is, of course, a moral one, which is why it necessarily gets so tangled.

An Anne Arundel high school principal was quoted as saying he would, naturally, be following the ruling, but with reservations. "We will be politically correct," he said, "but morally deficient."

But maybe he had it wrong.

I'd argue that the Supreme Court ruling actually makes us a little more moral.

The principle, once again, is the separation of church and state. That sounds like a tired old argument that we'd just as soon put away. But it isn't. Particularly now it isn't.

In America, we have religions of every imaginable stripe. Nobody can match us for variety. Check your yellow pages. We have mosques hard by churches, synagogues next to temples.

That we still manage to get along so well doesn't seem to surprise anyone. But maybe it should. Given the conflicts you see everywhere else, we're amazingly tolerant of religious differences.

Obviously, most American believe in some religion. A recent poll of Western countries showed that Americans are the most likely to believe in God.

But your prayer is not my prayer, and my prayer is not your prayer, no matter how nonsectarian we try to make it. And we haven't even mentioned those who choose not to pray. We have in America the distinct right not to believe.

Religion is a deeply held and deeply private affair. Where does the state figure into it? Imagine this scenario: Someday an American city becomes majority Muslim and its graduation ceremonies include bowing to the East.

It was only 30 years ago that the big-foot Supreme Court banned prayer in schools. Where I grew up, prayer was very much a part of the school day.

Schools are, of course, our great propagandizing tool. We propagandize there for the social good, after we determine, as a nation, what that good is. We teach our children that it's good to recycle and bad to use drugs. We teach the absolute truth that two plus two equals four.

And, once upon a time, we told children that the prayer we offered up was absolute truth, too.

And so, each morning after the pledge, in my school we'd have a prayer. We'd all fold our hands together, bow our heads and repeat a prayer that was dictated by the school system and community.

Except for the handful of Jewish kids in the class.

Our parents told us we weren't supposed to say that particular prayer -- that it was contrary to our religion. We didn't know why. How do you know when you're 6 years old?

All you know is that everyone else, including the teacher, who you were taught is always to be obeyed and respected, is saying the prayer.

Now, you're marked as different.

Is that what we want for our children?

There are plenty of places to pray in this country. We enjoy this remarkable freedom of worship. But, even more remarkable, no state is allowed to tell us when and how. That's the best blessing our young people could ever have.

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