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Posts Tagged ‘school prayer’

After posting about the school prayer issue in Illinois, my sister mentioned to me that her attorney friend was a little skeptical about my argument. He noted that the establishment clause simply prohibits the official establishment of any particular religion over another (B, let me know if I’ve got this wrong). I appreciate all reasoned comments and questions, because they cause me to continually rethink and evaluate my opinions (as they should).

At any rate, I think this is a common point with respect to school prayer, and to religious expression in general in the United States. And it is precisely one of the reasons why I don’t support mandating school prayer in public schools. Mandating “moments of silence” or other thinly veiled, similarly worded directives is, in my mind, basically saying, “we won’t tell you which religion you should be, but you ought to be some religion. A religion that involves praying to a god or higher power.”

No, no, no, the proponents say. You can meditate. You can reflect on your life. You can send good wishes to your aunt in Tulsa. You can work on that chunk of dry skin on your lower lip while scheming up ways to get back at your little brother.

Feh. What is the point, then? Why are some state legislators so adamant about enacting these laws if the time can be spent in sheer idleness? It is certainly not to protect a child’s right to let his mind wander aimlessly – that clearly isn’t the goal of institutionalized education – and in institutionalized education today, kids usually have more than enough opportunity during the day to take a mental vacation or two. It isn’t about giving kids a break – they get that at lunch, recess and study hall. That narrows it down to…could it be? An agenda to inject religion into public schools?

Oh, it is all so silly (and more than a little scary) and unnecessary anyway – unnecessary because all public schoolchildren already have the right to pray, and the government doesn’t have the right to tell them to, or not to:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

It doesn’t say “an establishment of a religion” (a particular religion over another). There is no article. It may certainly be implied (i.e. we don’t want a Church of America), but still – mandating prayer in public schools is an establishment of religion – not of one denomination over another, but just religion, period. It is mandating that administrators and teachers set aside time for religious practice in a public school.

A few quotes to chew on:

“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” (from the Treaty of Tripoli, passed by the U.S. Senate by unanimous vote in 1797)

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” (James Madison)

“The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“[I am] denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious that I am no Christian.” (Ethan Allen)

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion…has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon…” (Benjamin Franklin)

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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While the Illinois legislature could have been doing other things like, I don’t know, BALANCING THE BUDGET, two weeks ago it passed a law mandating a moment of silence in all public schools. As a person who has been in the trenches of the public school system, I can say unequivocally that silence can be a good thing. That’s why I, and most teachers I know, start off the day with just that – a brief period in the morning when students have some quiet time to do independent work (often called “Bell work”). For example, I gave my students a grammar exercise (written on the board) and a math review sheet. This gave me time to take attendance and to collect homework and lunch money. It was a time to focus, to center and to prepare for the day. This “moment of silence” lasted about ten or fifteen minutes, and at any time, any student who so wished could use a moment of this time to reflect, to mentally focus, or to pray.

Similarly, at lunch time, I dismissed students to get their lunches (we ate in the classroom) based on the noise level in the room. Hungry students are quiet students, if that is what the teacher requires. Same thing for dismissal at the end of the day. Students who want to go home are quiet students, if that is the expectation. My point is that students usually have several “moments of silence” built into their school day, not because is it legally mandated, but because teachers recognize the importance of establishing certain times that are calm, quiet and focused. For religious families who wish that their children take a moment to pray silently during the day, all they have to do is ask their children, or the teacher if they say they don’t know, if there are any such times during the day when this would be possible. Teachers, by the nature of their profession, need to be accommodating.

Over the course of the past two weeks, the op-ed pages have been chock-filled with opinions on the issue. The assumption, of course, is that this “moment of silence” is code-speak for “mandated prayer.” When I was in grammar school in the early eighties, my school instituted a moment of silence. After the principal made the announcements for the day, she presided via intercom over “sixty seconds of silence,” and a little beep let us know it was over. Ever the inquisitive one, I asked my fourth grade teacher what it was all about (she just loved me, by the way). She said, “So you can pray.” Then she caught herself and added, “or whatever.” Because, you know, she apparently remembered that our Constitution has this little detail about prohibiting the establishment of religion.

When I heard about the new law (vetoed by Governor Blagojevich and overruled), I just rolled my eyes and figured, well, there are bigger issues out there to get all worked up about. Like global warming, pollution, crime, poverty, immigration, terrorism and a few minor skirmishes in the Middle East. But yesterday I stared open-mouthed at an article in the Chicago Tribune that cited the official title of this bill: the “Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.” Come again? There is no assuming about it. This is about mandating prayer. It does not say “Silent Reflection OR Student Prayer.” It does in the body of the act, but not in the title. Notice also that the “reflection” part comes first in the title. Pretty sneaky, eh? It’s first about reflection and then about prayer. Yeah, sure. I’ll buy that for a dollar.

For someone who wavers between agnosticism and a sense that there must be some kind of universal intelligence, I have mixed feelings about the role that organized religion has played in our history. OK, some of those feelings aren’t so mixed. But I’m absolutely opposed to anybody telling me or my children, “you have to be silent right now to pray. Or whatever.” This is death by a thousand cuts to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Like Seinfeld’s “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the “or whatever” is just a politically correct add-on. That’s why I was relieved to find that I’m not the only one who feels this way. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, in response to a suit brought to him by an Arlington Heights parent, decided that the law is “too vague and ‘likely unconstitutional.'” I hope this isn’t the first such ruling. I’m going to go have myself a moment of silence to thank God for people who care about one of our most fundamental freedoms. Or whatever.

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