Heard best in private

June 14, 1994|By Robert Barshay

AN OLD Yiddish proverb states, "Bei nach hert zich veit." Loosely translated, it means, "Prayer is heard best at night." Although the proverb did not evolve as a result of the United States Constitution, it certainly has implications for the First Amendment.

The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a state religion. This prohibition is under attack again by proponents of prayer at high school commencements. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that commencement prayers violated the Constitution's provision requiring a separation of church and state in the case of Lee v. Weisman in 1992, advocates of religious freedom breathed a collective sigh of relief, believing that the persistent issue of commencement prayer was finally put to rest.

Such relief was short-lived. The thorny debate on this issue was resurrected in Texas by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the case of Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, also decided in 1992, the court held that high school commencement prayers do not violate the Constitution's provision requiring a separation of church and state if the commencement is student-planned and student-led.

The Supreme Court's decision a year ago to let stand the 5th Circuit Court's ruling has not only left the issue uncertain once again; it has also encouraged others to inject their religious beliefs into public high school ceremonies.

This became evident on June 24, 1993, when lawyers for the Black Horse Pike Regional School District, outside Camden, N.J., used the 5th Circuit decision to convince U.S. District Judge Joseph Irenas to allow prayer at the district's two high school commencements. On June 25, 1993, Judge Walter K. Stapleton, writing for the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected the logic of the 5th Circuit Court, declaring instead that high school graduations are school-sponsored events.

Thus, he argued, prayers conducted at such forums are unconstitutional, as they violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Judge Stapleton's words are worth quoting: "The fact that the school board has chosen to delegate the decision regarding one segment of the ceremony to the members of the graduating class does not alter that sponsorship, [and] does not diminish the effect of a prayer on students who do not share the same or any religious perspective . . ."

To argue, as some proponents of school prayer have, that attendance at high school commencement is voluntary and, therefore, not a religiously coercive event imposed on students is simply wrong. Almost all graduating students want to attend their commencement because it is an important rite of passage that they have earned.

Moreover, it may be the last time the students will see all of their friends and acquaintances together at one time and place, perhaps forever, and they know that. And, not the least important reason, the graduation ceremony is perhaps the largest event in their young lives to date, and the peer pressure to attend is reinforced by their desire to attend.

Also wrong is the argument that more students would protest prayer at commencement if in fact they truly found it offensive. The reluctance of teen-agers to protest imposed prayer because of their fear of being "weird" or different in the eyes of their friends is obvious to anyone who has brought up teen-agers.

If fears of wearing the wrong blouse or sneakers to a party can traumatize many young people, very few indeed would publicly threaten to sue their high school for a prayer offered at high school commencement, no matter how uncomfortable that prayer made them. To believe otherwise is to manifest as much ignorance about teen-agers as about the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

Prayer is a private act that creates meaning for the actor partly as a result of its privacy, in the sense that it is an intimate correspondence between the individual and a divine or spiritual force. By institutionalizing prayer at a public high school commencement on the grounds that attendance is purely voluntary and rarely protested by students, school administrators inflate commencement theatrics (as, indeed, they inflate student grades) while they deflate the importance of the First Amendment and demean the value of prayer.

Robert Barshay is dean of English and humanities at Prince George's Community College.

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