I've been preoccupied lately trying to think up ways to help the
folks who are all in a sweat to get prayer into public schools. Their
problem, see, is that every time they come up with a really good idea,
that pesky First Amendment gets in the way. You knowthe one that says
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Just last year, you may remember, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
against public address prayers before high school football games in Texas.
And back in 1985, the court struck down an Alabama law requiring a minute
of silent prayer in the classroom.
Both those pieties, the court said, violated the First Amendment
ban on state-sponsored religion.
But things are looking up. Virginia recently passed a law
requiring all public school students to observe a minute of silence to
"meditate, pray, or engage in other silent activity."
Andhallelujah!the Supreme Court two weeks ago decided to let stand a
lower court ruling that the law does not violate the First Amendment.
The critical difference is that instead of coercing prayer, the
new law simply lists prayer as one of three optionsall silent.
So it's pretty hard for critics of school prayer to get their
shorts in a knot over that. About the best they can do is wonder why we
need such a law. Students have always prayed silently, meditated
silently, or engaged in other silent activity. So why, the grumps wonder,
pass a law allowing kids to do what there was no way of even knowing they
were doing when they were doing it?
But those are the petty complaints of trouble-making malcontents.
My worry is that there's no way to guarantee that future Supreme
Courts will be as enlightened as this one. So in order to First
Amendment-proof Virginia's law, I offer these suggestions:
(1) Since most students don't know diddly about meditation, a
future court might decide it doesn't constitute a real alternative to
prayer for them. So let's have schools hire some aging hippies to show
students how to meditate. Then the kids will have a ready answer when
their parents ask what they learned in school today. "Om," they can say.
"Om. Om. Oooommm."
(2) Because "other silent activity" is a phrase so non-specific
that students seeking an alternative to prayer may be befuddled, we could
hire retired English teachers to lead classes through more specific guided
memory exercises: "What's your favorite sexual fantasy? Think about it
now." Or "What's the most embarrassing thing you ever did? Think about
it now." Or "What does it say about you that you can remember all the
words to 'Casey at the Bat'? Think about it now."
(3) To make sure that students are not led to believe that the
prayer option is designed to establish a particular religion (or
discourage the free exercise of another), the teacher can provide a list
of Deities to direct prayers towardin alphabetical order, of course, to
avoid implying that some Deities are more worthy of supplication than
others. Students could pray to Ahura-Mazda, Allah, Brahma, Jehovah, Our
Heavenly Father, Shang Ti, Siva, Vishna, Yahweh, Zeusor any other Deity
the student may want to speak to, including deceased pop singers.
The Truth, Mainly
And if a student should prefer a Specialist Deity to a Generalist
Deity, the teacher might suggest some of the lesser Greek gods and
goddesses: Aphrodite (goddess of love to help with those sexual
fantasies), Ares (god of war to help get revenge on the class jock who
calls you a wimp), Athena (goddess of wisdom to help on those ACT scores),
Poseidon (god of the sea to help keep you from drowning in swimming
class), Hermes (messenger god to help get that note to the other side of
the room where the object of your sexual fantasies sits), Hephaestus (god
of fire to help give your sanctimonious teacher a hot-foot).
And so forth.
Of course, by the time all those options get explained, the minute
set aside for meditation, prayer, or other silent activity will be long
past, and it will be time to get down to the business of education.
This week, we might have begun that business by looking at a
statement by Salman Rushdie, the novelist the Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced
to death in 1989 for his impious writing.
"If terrorism is to be defeated," Rushdie concluded in a piece in
the Nov. 2 NY Times, "the world of Islam must take on board the
secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without
which Muslim countries' freedom will remain a distant dream."
We could ask the students what connection they can make between
Rushdies' conclusion and the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
And given the way September 11 has wonderfully concentrated the minds of
us all, that might be a truly teachable moment.
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail