OK, He's Sincere, But Still Wrong

April 12, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Former District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry says he has a good answer to the violence and other problems plaguing his city's public schools: prayer.

Most of America has not seen Marion Barry since his taste for women and cocaine led to a starring role in one of the America's least-funny home videos a few years ago. In an FBI setup, the then-married Barry was suckered into smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room with a woman who was not his wife.

Since then, District residents have seen ''the former Mayor-for-life,'' as the local free weekly City Paper calls him, serve his time and find a new relationship with God while in rehabilitation for his drug problem.

Apparently his image was rehabbed, too, for, once freed, he was handily elected to represent Ward 8, the city's poorest, on the D.C. Council. Poor people loved Barry when he delivered jobs and services to them as mayor and, as one local veteran put it, they view him ''like a wayward son who got into trouble but now is trying to come home.''

He has yet to announce, but just about everyone believes he's working his way back to the mayor's office, and so far he is showing a strong chance of winning it. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly has been suffering in the polls lately, having failed to wrestle the District's bloated bureaucracy to the ground. Against that backdrop, Barry raised more than a few eyebrows when he introduced a bill in March to allow student-led, non-sectarian and non-proselytizing prayer in the District's public schools.

Barry says he realizes the issue may well end up in court, but, no matter, he wants the city to fight for it. Why not? It's not his money.

The U.S. Supreme Court, you may recall, ruled in 1962 that school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of church and state.

But prayer advocates think they have a loophole in a recent ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Texas and Mississippi. It allows student-led prayer at graduations as long as it is non-denominational and does not try to coerce students into particular beliefs.

Since then, school officials in nearby Loudoun County, Virginia, cited the 5th Circuit's decision when they decided to allow student-led prayers at last year's high school graduations. The school system was immediately sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But that hasn't stopped Virginia legislators from passing two bills promoting school prayer, and, rest assured, more are popping up across the country. It's just the sort of legislation politicians like. It's popular, it requires no tax increases and, even if it loses in court, the politicians who support it can say they tried.

Since I think everyone deserves a second chance in life, I won't question Barry's sincerity. Let's take him at his word when he says, ''With all this violence and other problems, we need to get back to trying to allow those who want to pray to do it. It may set a moral tone at the schools.''

Nor will I question the sincerity of the majority of city council members who say they, too, think the prayer legislation Barry has introduced is a good way to deal with problems like crime, drugs, illiteracy and high dropout rates.

Nor will I question Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's sincerity when she says she too supports school prayer as ''a way to instill values.''

I won't question their sincerity. As George Burns once said, the secret to success is sincerity -- if you can fake that, you've got it made.

It's not their sincerity that troubles me. It is their politics. If Ben Franklin was right when he declared patriotism to be the last refuge of a scoundrel, religion must run a close second.

As old as politics itself are appeals to God and country -- ''and not necessarily in that order,'' as one Englishman gruffly huffed in ''Chariots of Fire.''

Sincere or not, it is politically shrewd to use religion to score political points. It also strikes me as morally repugnant, particularly when it takes time, effort and attention away from solutions that might actually show a measurable chance of working.

Although the Supreme Court has yet to rule on student-led prayer, I don't think this new measure has a prayer, judging by earlier decisions.

No matter how you try to squeeze it through legal loopholes, school prayer flagrantly disregards the rights, sensibilities and JTC sensitivities of children who are members of religious minorities.

Jews, Muslims, Baha'i and others easily can feel excluded or potentially be harassed by the daily message that they are outsiders, that they somehow don't belong in the same way that the Christian majority belongs.

I'm not hostile to religion. Personally, I wish the problems plaguing our schools could be solved by prayer. It's just that I know better.

Besides, children who want to pray have ample opportunities to do it on their own or outside school. I recall John F. Kennedy offering what I thought was the last word on this issue in 1962: If parents would only pray with their children at home, he said, we wouldn't need to worry about whether they pray in school.

Obviously, I was wrong when I thought that actually was the last word on the subject. It only should have been.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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