Moment of reflection for the people hurt by prayer in schools

August 26, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

The issue, once again, is prayer in schools. This never fails to surprise me.

It seems like such a simple concept: School is for . . . learning. Or, to put it another way, you should no more expect to go to school to pray than to go to church to study chemistry.

Think about this for minute.

If there's prayer in school, why not have prayer at the workplace? Or during a movie? At the hardware store? Or maybe in place of the seventh-inning stretch, if we ever get baseball back?

What's so special about having prayer in school? Why is this such an important point for so many?

Forget, for a moment, the constitutional difficulties. Forget, if you can, about the little child who feels like an outcast because his particular beliefs don't allow him to join his classmates in prayer.

There's an even more basic issue. What's the point of praying in school? Aren't there many better places to pray? Aren't there places specifically designed for prayer? Do you really want some school-system bureaucrat telling your kid when and how to pray?

If you want your kid to pray during the day, can't you try it at home right before school? Or right after school? Why do you need to pray during world history class?

Of course, like many of you, I have prayed in school. As an example, I prayed every time I had to take a trig test.

It never helped. And I don't mind telling that it shook my faith, if only temporarily.

That's just one of the dangers of prayer in school. There are more serious ones, of course.

In Georgia, an American government teacher has been suspended and may be fired over prayer in school. There's danger for you.

The forward-thinking Georgia legislature recently passed a law mandating a moment of silence, during which school children, if they desire, can pray. Supporters say the minute is for reflection. That, of course, is a euphemism. The issue is prayer and everyone knows it.

Brian Brown was lecturing on the Protestant Reformation at his suburban Atlanta high school when a voice came over the public-address system calling for silence. And yet, he kept talking during the entire minute, even as two students tried to pray.

The teacher kept talking as a form of protest. Brown is aware that the moment of silence is a prelude, many Georgia legislators hope, to organized school prayer like they used to have in the bad old days until the Supreme Court said it violated the First Amendment, which prohibits state-established religion.

In the old days, in many parts of the country, everyone was led by the teacher in a common prayer. Except for the kids whose religion said they shouldn't. The teacher and most of the kids prayed while a handful stood uncomfortably silent. How clearly were these kids separated from the rest of the class? How emphatically can you say these kids are different?

This is what some people want to embrace again and what Brown clearly does not.

He is making his point too clearly for some.

George Thompson, the school system superintendent, is among those calling for Brown's dismissal. As of yesterday, Brown remained suspended and was awaiting a hearing.

Thompson said of Brown: "I think it is divisive when an American government teacher openly violates the law in front of students. It could encourage them to do the same thing."

Or it could simply encourage government students to wonder whether all laws are necessarily just. Or it could encourage them to ponder the role of protest in American society. You know, they might even engage in the higher level kind of thinking everyone says we want in schools.

"How could I ever ask my students to respect me when I refuse to stand up for what I believe is right?" Brown would say later.

He believes the moment of silence is wrong. He believes prayer has no place in the schools.

Schools are troubled enough. On the one hand, they're a dumping ground for all our social problems. And, on the other, they get blamed when American students fail to score as well as, say, their Japanese counterparts.

We don't need to pray in our schools.

If anything, we need to pray for our schools.

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