All right. I'll come right out and say it: I'm in favor of prayer in schools.
Yes, in PUBLIC schools.
No one has the right to deny prayer to a student seeking divine intervention before a major exam for which no amount of last-minute cramming will produce remotely correct answers. Such prayer has been part of the classroom landscape since there were classrooms.
But private prayer – the please-God-help-me-get-into-a-good-college exhortation – isn't exactly what Florida legislators had in mind in passing the school-prayer law.
No, it’s not what they had in mind at all.
Although the law says local school officials may allow students to give "inspirational messages" at assemblies, graduations, football games and other functions, its intent is clearly to slide officially-sanctioned prayer into public schools. And that, quite simply, is wrong.
Certain friends of mine don't understand my opposition. A little religion, they argue, never hurt anyone, conveniently forgetting the Spanish Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials. But, I suspect, that a little religion will lead to a lot of religion in public schools and other taxpayer-funded, public institutions. Not exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they called for separation of church and state.
More troubling is that school-prayer advocates aren’t just calling for prayer, they’re calling for Christian prayer. Would they mind rotating the “inspirational messages” among Jewish prayers, Muslim prayers, Gregorian chants and what have you? I suspect not.
Don’t get me wrong. As I said, prayer is swell. As a student, I prayed. As a hormone-rich adolescent, I prayed really, really hard and mostly in vain. As a sports fan, I still pray. But they’re my prayers and they're extraordinarily private.
Prayers, in fact, are among an individual's most private acts. They are between just you and God or Allah or whatever supreme force you believe directs and instructs your life path. They even may be prayers to yourself.
Proponents of this law have the freedom to send their children to religious schools, where school prayer is encouraged and part of the curriculum. This is what my parents did in sending me to Catholic school, where I prayed with other pint-sized adherents and dutifully penciled a crucifix atop each school paper as instructed by the nuns. In such schools, children can pray with other children of identical beliefs.They can pray aloud, they can pray silently.
And, of course, there's always home-schooling. But that would involve prayer at home, not school, so I'm not sure that would quite satisfy the school-prayer crowd.
Another option is for public schools to set aside a moment of quiet reflection at the start of each day. A moment of centered thought. Of intellectual focus. During that time, students could reflect on anything they want. God. School. Tests for which they're unprepared, triggering yet another fresh volley of school prayer. Or they could reflect on absolutely nothing.
In this way, school-prayer proponents would get what they want – students praying in school – while the rest of us would be left alone.
Then later, when all of us are at the high school football game and our team is down by five points as the clock races toward zero, and our quarterback takes the snap, falls back into the pocket and lets fly a towering pass arching toward the outstretched arms of our fastest wide receiver, you can say a Hail Mary.
I'll be saying one in silence right beside you.
A former award-winning journalist, John Heagney is the founder and president of John Heagney Public Relations and on the faculty of USF's Corporate College.
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