Saturday, July 27, 2013

School-Sponsored Prayer: What's the Harm?

Last night I didn't feel like reading, especially not the geeky books I usually read. But there wasn't much else to do. So I watched a geeky video. It was an old Bill Moyers interview, from 1987, called God and the Constitution. Moyers talks to Dr. Martin Marty, a Christian and an expert on the religious views of the founders, and Leonard Levy, a Jewish constitutional scholar who edited The Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. All three men are stunningly smart, and I urge everyone to watch it (you can stream it for 3 bucks on, or watch it for free if you have a library card and your local library has Access Video on Demand).

The part that struck me the most was Dr. Levy talking about school-sponsored prayer. (Not voluntary student prayer, which is protected by the First Amendent. I want to make clear nobody is saying kids shouldn't be allowed to pray on their own at school.) Levy offers one of the most powerful and personal arguments I've ever heard for keeping official prayers out of schools. It's more impressive if you watch the video, but here's the transcript:
Moyers: What about school prayer?  
Levy: I think that the state should not promote or sponsor religion.  
Moyers: But there are prayers and "prayers." You grew up in De Kalb, Illinois, right?  
Levy: I did.  
Moyers: 20 Years ago in De Kalb the court said the cookie prayer was unconstitutional.  
Levy: I forgot that it came out of De Kalb!  
Moyers: "We thank you for the flowers so sweet, we thank you for the food we eat, we thank you for the birds that sing we thank you, God, for everything." The court declared it unconstitutional even though the teacher took out the word "God".  
Levy: She did, but the court didn't quite declare it unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court won't agree to review a case, they allow the lower court decision to stand. If that's how you construe it--which is reasonable--yes, the court, in effect, upheld that.  
Moyers: Now, do you think the founding fathers would have thought that little verse an establishment of religion?  
Levy: I think not, but... to begin with, that's a prayer being said in the public school. The founding fathers had no position with respect to this because public schools as we know them did not exist. Prayers do not belong in public schools even though they are sterilized, as in the cookie prayer which is non-denominational, and doesn't even refer to God. I agree with you that religious liberty would not be imperiled if children said the cookie prayer in the public schools.  
Moyers: The teacher said she was only trying to instill a sense of wonder in the children--to make them appreciative of the world around them and of the divine being that made that world. She wasn't trying to persuade or to indoctrinate them.  
Levy: These cases are very complex. That's why the court divides so closely and so frequently. When you say that that teacher wanted to inspire children with a sense of wonderment and you referred to her talking about a supreme being, that is a religious statement. You and I may believe it but there are people who don't believe it. 
Moyers: You think the First Amendment protects atheists?  
Levy: Of course it does! The First Amendment protects religion and non-religion. There are people who are not theists who are in our public schools by the thousands. There are people who are not Christians or Jews or Muslims and they ought not be exposed to that cookie prayer which alludes to a divine being who allegedly created the world. You think so and I think so, but there are people who don't think so and they shouldn't be made to feel like outsiders, as if they don't belong, as if this is not their country. It's their country as much as it is ours. 
Moyers: If I remember correctly you refused to take part in prayers in De Kalb, Illinois, when you were a boy there--1935, 1936. What happened when you said "I can't participate in that prayer."  
Levy: What happened? Well, I was ostracized. No, more than that--I was persecuted. They beat me up regularly as I went home from school. Gangs of kids would jump out and beat the hell out of me and call me a "Jew bastard" and "Christ killer." I loved to play softball, and I was kept off the team. "No kikes on our team," was the motto which had, by the way, some sponsorship from the faculty. When religion is introduced directly into the public schools there is a price that may very well be paid by people who are different. There have often been times when persecution was visited upon children who wouldn't participate in the public school rituals of religion.
Powerful stuff. Of course, the thirties were a very different time, and I don't think that kind of thing would happen to Jewish kids these days. At least not as commonly and openly. But kids can be very cruel when they decide to single out another kid, mobbing them like a bunch of crows. And I can certainly imagine them abusing a Hindu or Sikh kid, or especially a Muslim or atheist kid, for declining to participate in Christian prayers. Even if they didn't (and most often they wouldn't), that kid would be put in a very, very uncomfortable situation. Now, some people will say that this doesn't apply in overwhelmingly Christian areas. But it does. I'm from a small, white, Protestant town smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, but there were a handful of Hindu and Muslim kids even there, and probably more than a handful of non-religious kids. The Hindu and Muslim kids were younger than me, and I don't know if they were ever harassed because of their religion. If so, I would think it was probably minor. But I might be wrong, and I'm pretty sure they would have had a tougher time if they had been put in the position of deciding whether or not to say prayers along with the Christian kids. That could have opened up a can of worms. So why open it? Leaving official prayer and other religious observances out of school keeps the problem from ever arising, or at least from arising because of school policy. And besides, Dr. Levy is right. It's their country, too.