Schools should allow parents to be responsible for religion
When I was in elementary school, we said a prayer every morning. The teacher led the prayer just like she led the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and, to be honest, I never thought much about either. I’d memorized them both and dutifully said them both.One day a boy named David told me I didn’t have my eyes closed during the prayer. He was right. I’d been watching the farmer’s cows walking single file up the hill across the road. Still, when challenged by David I retorted, “How would you know? You must have had your eyes open, too.”His answer surprised me.”I never say the prayer.” His voice wasn’t defiant but simply matter of fact. “I’m Jewish.”When you grow up in a small farming community it’s easy to assume everyone is like you – white and Protestant – and it’s easy to forget (perhaps “ignore” is a better word) that’s not how everyone else is.David was just like the rest of us, I’d thought. But he’d said he was Jewish. Did that make him different? But how did it make him different? He looked just like the rest of us. From Sunday school I knew that Jews were from Israel and Jesus was Jewish.
So how come David didn’t say the prayer like the rest of us? David decided to clam up. And typical of second-graders, I didn’t give it another thought. At least not for a couple of years.When I was in the third and fourth grades we stopped having the morning prayer. But once a month we’d have a visiting teacher who taught Bible classes. His name was Rev. Bayles and he was a Baptist minister who always opened and ended the Bible class with a prayer. Mostly he told us the same stories I’d heard before in Sunday school at Grace Lutheran. What I liked best about Bible class was there were no tests and no grades.Whenever he came to teach, David and a new girl, Shelly, would be excused. They went to the library, I later learned.At the age of 9, I didn’t know that the reason the teacher stopped leading the morning prayer was a suit filed in court challenging prayer in public schools. To circumvent the issue, Virginia allowed Bible classes to be taught in public schools. The validity of that class, too, was eventually challenged in court and the inevitable result was the Rev. Bayles was out of a job. Actually, he became the assistant football coach at a nearby high school. Years later when we played that team, I remember being struck by the irony that it was the man with the quiet voice who’d once taught lessons about the golden rule who was now on the other sideline yelling, “Knock his head off.”
In junior high, the same Shelly who used to go to the library instead of Bible class moved into our neighborhood. One day when we were playing I used the phrase “Jewed out of.” I’d heard grownups use it; knew that it meant to get the better of someone in a deal. No sooner had the words come out of my mouth than Shelly kicked me hard in the shin. When I asked her why she just glared at me and walked off. Her lesson in social sensitivities, unlike her saddle shoe, missed me completely.It was only when I explained the bruise on my leg to my mom that I’d learned that I’d insulted Shelly. And she ordered me to apologize.”Go do it right now,” she told me. And I did as I was told. It was late November. Shelly’s mom ushered me in. That night I learned about Hanukkah from Shelly and her mom. I was more curious than apologetic, but that was OK. Over the next few years, before she moved away, Shelly told me much about growing up Jewish, a fact of her life that made her different from nearly everyone else in the small town we called home. She told me that, to her, Jesus was a great teacher, but not the messiah. It was Shelly who first made me realize that what we believe makes us who we are. It makes us neither right nor wrong, nor better or worse. It simply defines us, which was a truly important lesson to learn.
To oversimplify the debate on prayer in school, there are three choices. Allow prayer. Disallow prayer. Offer a compromise such as a moment of silence, which is what many states have chosen to do. Colorado allows for a moment of silence but it’s up to individual school districts to decide if such a policy is implemented. Summit schools have chosen not to; however the law is also quite clear that any student can say an individual prayer any time they choose.Whenever I hear someone debating prayer in school I think back to my own experience in elementary school. Saying those prayers weren’t meaningless, but they clearly were not very meaningful. While the majority of Americans are Christian, the tenets of a democracy don’t allow us to ignore or trample on the rights of those who profess other beliefs. And for that matter there’s not exactly general agreement among every Christian denomination. I’m struck by the thought that a moment of silence or a silent prayer, or whatever one chooses to call it, is only going to work if parents teach their children how to use that moment. Isn’t the real issue that we shouldn’t look to others, whether that is government or schools, for what parents have the right, privilege and responsibility to do?Publisher Jim Morgan writes a Tuesday column.
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