Prayer in school: Memories from 30 years ago

MICHAEL OLESKER

June 17, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Thirty years ago, my high school homeroom teacher put a Bible in his hands, walked to the front of the classroom and dared the U.S. Supreme Court to stop him from reading the 23rd Psalm out loud.

The high court, in its lofty wisdom, was about to declare prayer in public schools unconstitutional. My homeroom teacher, in his instinctive protectiveness, was about to declare these legal geniuses out of line.

"Bow your heads for the prayer," he declared, and almost everybody did -- not necessarily because we felt like praying but because, at that hour of the morning, praying is what millions of school kids in America did, whether they noticed it or not.

Which, to my way of thinking, was precisely the point that everyone in America has always missed.

Today marks exactly 30 years since the Supreme Court decision outlawing prayer in schools and brings back memories of Baltimoreans who helped set off three decades of outraged cries across the country asking what, in the name of godlessness, the Supreme Court had done.

Remember the names? There was Leonard Kerpelman, the rebel-attorney who convinced the court that God had no place in the nation's public schools. And Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the ostentatious atheist who'd hired him. And her son, William J. Murray, who was a student at Poly through much of the long legal fight.

It was a funny thing about poor, friendless William Murray. Everybody I knew at Poly back then pitied him -- not because of anything relating to God or the Bible, but because he'd been thrown into a situation beyond his control and had to pay a price for someone else's beliefs.

But then, wasn't that the whole point of the prayer-in-schools fight: having to endure daily expressions of belief which weren't necessarily your own? That's how the legal argument went, anyway. It wasn't fair, we were told, to put kids in the uncomfortable position of listening to prayers which might not fit their own faith, or to make kids pray when they might not believe in prayer.

This, too, was a funny thing because none of the kids I knew thought these were the real problems at all. The kids I knew -- and they came from most walks of faith and faithlessness -- found the morning rituals one more thing imposed by adults that you'd simply stopped thinking about.

You just did it. Bow your heads for the prayer, teachers everywhere said, and you did it because you'd been programmed to do it. Like the daily pledge to the flag, the words had long since become a blur and the exercises one more thing to slog through.

When they told you to salute the flag, you did it out of habit. All reverence was replaced by reflex. If you stopped to think about it at all, you wondered: Why are we doing this again? Didn't we pledge our allegiance yesterday and the day before?

The daily prayer was similar in its numbing repetition, in its daily ordinariness: All life had been sapped from things which should have moved us deeply. The familiarity of words removed all connection to the reverence, to the intimacy with God, that you were supposed to be feeling.

Your intimacy with the deity -- if, in fact, you believed -- was a private thing, not something you wished to share with classmates who were, at that hour of the morning, finishing their homework, copying somebody else's homework, cramming for a test, cracking wise, or mumbling their way through prayers without a moment's actual thought.

In such an atmosphere, religious intimacy is a little strained. Reading from the Bible, bowing your head in prayer, were things you did whether you noticed them or not.

Those who want prayer in schools have their point: Why should their kids be robbed of a chance to express their beliefs? Their opponents also have their point: Why should school be the place to express those beliefs, and why should some have to feel uncomfortable if they don't have the "right" beliefs?

Thirty years ago, I admired my homeroom teacher for opening the Bible and standing up to distant authority figures saying he couldn't lead us in prayer.

But a piece of me wondered: Don't all these adults understand how they've diminished the act, how the sheer, daily regularity has numbed all specialness out of something that ought to be divine?

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