Listen to Rev. Greene

November 27, 1994|By ROGER TARTARIAN

It would be great if both President Clinton and Newt Gingrich, the man who needs no introduction, would listen to the Rev. Reuben Greene of St. Helena Island in South Carolina.

Rev. Greene is a member of the Beaufort County (S.C.) School Board and he would have something to say to them on the subject of prayer in public schools. It would apply equally to Mr. Gingrich's call for a school prayer amendment to the Constitution and to the president's counter-suggestion for a simpler resolution sanctioning a moment of silence for students to ponder the great mysteries in their own way.

Rev. Greene was a dissenting voice when the Beaufort School Board was discussing compliance with a new state law requiring each school day in South Carolina to begin with a minute of silence.

He saw it as a backdoor approach to bringing religion into schools, and he offered a word of advice to parents who feel school is the place for meditation, reflection or prayer.

"If your child wants a silent minute," he said, "let him have it before he leaves home."

There, stripped of false piety and dazzling in its clarity, is the solution. Why, we must ask, can't Messrs. Clinton and Gingrich agree that the place for prayer is the home or some designated place of worship and let Congress get on with more mundane problems?

It would be a clear delineation: The home and church to concentrate on religion and the schools to concentrate on education. Why not?

If a fleeting minute of prayer or meditation in a classroom is going to be as effective in curing social ills as its sponsors believe, think how much more efficacious an hour or two at home or church would be.

There is plenty of evidence that Mr. Gingrich's gung-ho call for a constitutional prayer amendment has not resonated as strongly with the public as he had guessed or hoped, even among some Christian groups. Ralph Reed, president of the Christian Coalition, is quoted as saying the Gingrich proposal "is not our top priority."

"I, for one, don't think we'll turn the country around by having public acts of piety," Mr. Reed said, reflecting a sentiment that will be widely applauded beyond his own movement. He said his organization's priorities were tax relief and welfare reform.

Prayer advocates who have bothered to think about it see formidable problems in trying to draft appropriate language for a change in the Constitution. The text of one proposed amendment was published the other day in the New York Times:

"Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any State to participate in prayer. Neither the United States nor any state shall compose the words of any prayer to be said in public schools."

The problems leap out at you. Does the opening sentence countenance prayer during class hours or simply meet the demand for religious uses of school buildings after class hours? Who is to referee competing claims? Will this be on the basis of the number of followers each group has?

We must assume these are to be prayers of a student's own choice and are to be offered in silence; otherwise the classroom will be a Tower of Babel. What thought police are to make sure the silent kids are in fact praying and not simply meditating what to wear later in the mall?

Are teachers to prompt the meditation and who is to monitor their neutrality? How can it be ensured that children of non-Christian families do not feel coerced, or branded with a feeling of apartheid, when all around them are standing in prayer?

No one would argue with the provision that neither the federal nor state governments shall compose the words of any school prayer. But does this mean the authority rests elsewhere? With the local school board? Will this lead to people running for the board on sectarian platforms?

Since no one currently is required to participate in prayer, why do we need a constitutional provision against it?

Mr. Gingrich and other advocates of school prayer seem to think you can shape human behavior by putting something in the Constitution. There are no encouraging precedents. Some people remember an amendment, the 18th, that was supposed to make us all stop drinking alcoholic beverages. It required another amendment to acknowledge that that attempt to make the Constitution the vehicle of moral reform was a failure.

Messrs. Clinton, Gingrich and others in Washington can save themselves a lot of grief and get cracking on more urgent problems by following the counsel of the Rev. Reuben Greene and leaving well enough alone.

Roger Tatarian is professor emeritus of journalism at Fresno State University and former editor of United Press International.

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