Don’t knock down the church-state wall

First grade. The first day of public school. The very first memory I can locate specifically in time and place. Our teacher leads a recitation of words I’ve never heard before. Yet somehow all the other students already have the words memorized, and join in. I don’t understand. Why do all the other kids know this while I don’t?

That afternoon I ask my mother why I don’t know the Lord’s Prayer like all the other kids. She explains to me that it’s important in the Christian religion, but not in ours. It’s not a prayer Jewish people say.

So at age 6, I’m faced with a dilemma. Should I learn this prayer and say it along with everyone else? That’s up to you, my mother tells me. I could say it, or remain silent while everyone else recites, or she offers to request that I be excused from the room during the prayer. That last choice isn’t really an option — I don’t want to stand out from my classmates that much. Over the next few years I try both of the other choices, but neither seems right. I want to be a full participant in my class, but I don’t want to recite a prayer that’s not part of my religious tradition. Eventually I settle on respectful silence.

The memory remains with me to this day, more than half a century later. It was the first time — but by no means the last — that I would feel set apart from my classmates because of my religious heritage.

I also remember the day the U.S. Supreme Court finally lifted this burden. In 1962, the court ruled that state-sponsored school prayer violated the constitutional separation of church and state. Public schools could no longer begin each day with an officially sanctioned prayer. My family felt both gratitude and relief that we no longer would have to sit through daily devotions from other people’s traditions.

Since then, I’ve had too many opportunities to wonder if that decision will ever be fully implemented. When I began teaching in Richmond in the mid-1970s, I was stunned to discover some teachers starting each morning with Christian classroom devotions. I would still hear the Lord’s Prayer echoing from some classrooms, even though a few of our students were not Christian and despite the court’s ruling. Over the years, my own classrooms included Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is and atheists, among others. If I were to consider leading my students in prayer, how would I choose?

Several years ago, my late father-in-law was honored at a Chesterfield Board of Supervisors meeting that, to our astonishment, began with a minister praying “in Jesus’s name.”

And now the dilemma is back yet again. Some people still want to return institutional prayer to public school classrooms and government functions, and even to take it upon themselves to select which prayers should be offered.

A few weeks ago a Facebook friend posted a petition on my page calling for a return to prayer in public schools. I deleted it. A few days later, the petition was back again, posted by someone else. Government-sponsored prayer also returned to the Virginia General Assembly this year. A constitutional amendment to allow school and government officials to lead organized prayer was introduced — despite the First Amendment’s prohibition of any form of government-established religion.

And now this paper has reported that the Obama administration, along with dozens of House and Senate members, has urged the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court decision (Town of Greece v. Galloway) banning predominantly Christian invocations at town council meetings.

In fact, nothing in the Supreme Court’s decision precludes individuals from praying in school or at government-sponsored events. Students and teachers — indeed all of us — are free to pray privately as often as we choose, wherever we choose, to whomever we choose. But our government may not make that choice for us. That is a core American principle. It’s hard for me to understand why anyone would want it any other way.

So, let’s be clear: In the United States, each of us is free to pray. We live in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles. However, no government official or school employee may lead a public meeting or public school children in government-sponsored prayer. Our nation is composed of citizens from so many different backgrounds and beliefs that subjecting us to any one particular invocation will inevitably separate and divide us, rather than strengthening our civic bonds. Institutionalized prayer in school or at other governmental functions is quite simply un-American.


Published August 20, 2013, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch