Ruling to quiet school prayer still seems right

November 20, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I remember the day they told us to stop praying. I was sitting in my homeroom class at City College that morning, and some of the smart kids in the class knew all about it from reading the morning paper: No more talking to God in class, the U.S. Supreme Court declared. You want to talk to God, you do it on your own time, or on God's time, but not on school time.

It was an order so authoritative, and so powerful, that it lasted until the moment my homeroom teacher walked into the room a moment later, picked up a Bible, and began to read the Lord's Prayer out loud.

It was his way of spitting in the eye of the Supreme Court, and I loved the drama of the moment and the defiant courage of my homeroom teacher; at the same instant, I could not have agreed with him less.

The wonderful gift of City College was the way it brought in kids from all over this city. Thus, on that historic day, it was possible to see kids from every religion and race and creed react to the historic ruling on prayer with the same outward gesture: yawns of indifference.

The wonderful gift of growing old is the ability to look back and discover that once in a while, against all odds, something that you found truthful back then is still truthful now: The court made the right decision, which can be measured by continuing indifference.

I never understood the need for organized prayer in school when I was a student and now, 32 years after the ruling, I still don't understand it, even though this guy Newt Gingrich and his friends want to bully us into it, with the possible acquiescence of Bill Clinton and his backbone of wet noodle.

Can we get something very clear at the outset? Nobody -- not the U.S. Supreme Court, not the godless liberals, not the religious minorities, not whoever your favorite demon of the moment may be in this business -- nobody ever said prayer in schools must stop.

They were talking about organized prayer, the kind where the teacher picks a passage from a Bible, and someone reads it in front of the whole class, and some kids feel uncomfortable and out of place and others think it's fine and most don't feel anything, which may be the biggest shame of all.

At its best, prayer is a secret. It's an intimate conversation, one person at a time with his or her private version of a holy spirit. It's nobody's business but the one praying, and God. Who needs a group for that? A group only infringes on your privacy and makes you self-conscious. So you don't really pray, so much as go through the motions. This leads to a deadening thing, which they should know all about in Washington, called numbing. Ask any teacher, or any former student who's old enough to remember when we still had organized school prayer. Almost everybody spaces out. Genuine feeling exits the room.

So we now have the rising of Newt Gingrich, who's about to give God a bad name. How so? By using God to divide the country. Gingrich is great at declaring government should get out of people's lives -- except when it concerns that most intimate act, a relationship with God. Somehow, this is the place where big government should enter the picture?

(Maybe Gingrich is afraid that, if kids can't pray in school, they'll be driven in their mad desire to find God to look for him in places that are really foreign to them, such as churches and synagogues and mosques and their own homes.)

Those urging school prayer like to say the country hasn't been the same since the Supreme Court ruling. In the past three decades, crime's up, drug use is up, families are falling apart. All of this, we're told, can be traced to the end of school prayer.

If this is true, why make the breakdown so selective? The court made its decision in 1962. In '63, John Kennedy was shot. By '64, we were getting deeper into Vietnam. Not only that, but ticket prices at movie theaters were rising, and Mickey Mantle grew old, and did anybody notice how ugly fashions were getting?

What we have here, besides sarcasm, is an attempt to say that things simply change. School prayer or not. If the political opportunists like Gingrich, or those without ulterior motive, believe that the lack of school prayer has led the country astray, they miss the point slightly.

It's a handy symbol for a nation that seems to have lost its moral compass. But not all symbols hold up. There is still prayer in the land. You can do it in houses of worship, or the house where you live. You can do it on a street corner. You can do it at the ballpark when the bases are loaded, or in a bowling alley when you've got to convert that spare, or a hospital room when somebody you love is clinging to life.

You can even do it in school. Nobody stops you. The oldest joke is that, as long as there are teachers giving tests, there'll be students saying prayers. But those are the best kind of prayers: secrets between the one praying, and the one we hope is listening. It isn't prayer-on-command.

Hopefully, in the silence of our private moment, we can get

through to God. All those other folks in the room, making their own noise during organized praying, tend to blur the communication.

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