One issue haunts me. I put it on the back burner, and it returns again and again. Just when I think the furor over Christian prayer in public school has died down, it rises like a phoenix.
Let me state this as plainly as I can: Among other things, the separation of church and state means that there is no official or “state” religion. We are a richly diverse society, where a great many people believe a great many things. Therefore, a prayer to the Christian deity before an assembly or PTA meeting or football game breaches that barrier.
In America, we have freedom of religion — which also means freedom from religion. Anyone doing a cursory reading of colonial-American history, and the European history that precedes it, must see that a state religion in a pluralist society simply can’t work. So when the justices, in their wisdom, declare “no prayer before football games,” we have the chance to revisit the issue. Again.
A local group calling itself “We Still Pray” has formed. Several area pastors are calling for rallies at high-school football games and “spontaneous” “Our Fathers” after the playing of the National Anthem. I suggest that these efforts are misguided, at best.
Suppose we overturn or ignore the issue of teacher-organized prayer in school: Every morning announcement ends with “in Jesus’ name we pray, amen,” and football players take the field clad in the whole armor of the Christian god. The Christian majority is happy and the handful of non-Christians are too polite to complain. It’s just a football game, right? Besides, all those religious minorities know that our great nation was founded on Christian ideals, don’t they? It’s historical, if you disregard the influence of the Iroquois Confederation. It’s tradition. It’s our heritage. And those minority religions — we’re just talking about a handful of Jews and a cranky atheist or two, aren’t we?
That’s what happens in some schools here on the buckle of the Bible Belt. The administration turns a blind eye and deaf ear to the obvious violations of separation of church and state, and no one is harmed. Right? But let the mayor of Asheville sign a proclamation for Earth Religions Awareness Week — after signing all sorts of similar ones for Baptists, Methodists, even Catholics — and hear the howl of protest about separation of church and state from the Christian Right.
Well, I (for one) am ready to play this game out. You want prayer in school? You got it. I believe I can put together a team of Pagan clergy who can go into every school in the district and lead a prayer to the Great Goddess in her aspect as Destroyer before football games. And I hope my Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu friends will join in.
So when your child comes home from school and tells about her morning meditation or prayer to Shiva or hymn to Inanna, that’s not a problem, is it? After all, we all want prayer back in school. We want God to take Her rightful place in the public-school lives of our children. We don’t need separation of church and state, because we can all share in the public religious education of our children. My daughter is certainly strong enough in her Pagan-school training to enjoy a foray into comparative religions.
But wait. Paganism, according to several surveys, is the fastest growing spiritual movement in the country. Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are likewise making great inroads among spiritual Americans. What will happen when the majority religion is no longer Christianity? Will Christian children be made to feel like outcasts and have to deal with being a minority religion with no consideration for their needs? Will they be subjected to a month-long Ramadan holiday or days off for Samhain or Yom Kippur?
Let’s keep the barriers between the state house and the church house firmly in place. No child (and no parent) should be made to feel less American or inferior because they are part of a religious minority. We pray, too.
[H. Bryon Ballard lives in Asheville.]