Saturday, February 10, 2007

Public Prayer

Matthew 6:5-6

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly

Ever since 1963, when the Supreme Court banned school sponsored prayer conducted by teachers in public schools, the issue of school prayer has been a hot button issue.

By the time I started school in the fall of 1964, we didn't study the Bible, nor did our teachers lead any prayers. At that time, and for the rest of my school years ending in 1976, this wasn't a problem for anyone. We went to school to learn about academic subjects and students went to their various houses of worship to pray and learn about their faith. Just as people didn't go to church to learn math, they didn't go to school to be instructed in religion.

When I was in high school in the mid-70s, we started each by listening to the national anthem, which was followed by a "moment of meditation". This moment could be used to pray or to think about whatever each student wished, according to each individual conscience. It worked out well and offended no one.

Religion wasn't totally absent from our school life, nor was its expression stifled. Religious kids brought their Bibles to school and they had Bible studies in study hall without interference from the school administration. Likewise, it was a common thing to see students wearing a cross or a Star of David.

What was different from pre-1963 public schools was that the school did not sponsor nor lead any religious activities going on in the school -- it didn't "kick God out of school", as some fundamentalists dramatically assert, as if it would even be possible to ban an omnipotent being, anyway. And, as the old saying goes, as long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in school.

I've never understood why religious parents would want the public schools leading group prayers in the first place. Public schools contain students and teachers from all walks of life and from all religions and no religions. It would be impossible to conduct prayers that would be meaningful to all and that would also not stigmatize nonbelievers. I would think a watered-down generic prayer would please no one.

I believe the setup that existed when I was in school worked better and was more meaningful than when school led, coerced prayer was the order of the day. Those that prayed did so out of their own free will and out of genuine desire, rather than being compelled to do so.

In recent years, other types of public group prayer at non-religious events have generated controversy as well. In my state, there has been an ongoing feud between the local ACLU and several county councils about opening their meetings with a group prayer. While the ACLU no doubt has better things to do than get involved in this practice, which is probably entirely voluntary, I think the "moment of meditation" solution might work well in this type of environment as well.

But, ultimately, to those who want to turn every public gathering into a prayer meeting, I would direct them to the Bible verses above for a bit of sound wisdom. In closing, I'll leave you with a relevant quote from Harry Truman:

“When they start praying too loudly over in the prayer corner, you’d better go home and lock your henhouse.”

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