Several years ago, when I was living in a small city in coastal Georgia, the parents of a Jewish girl went to the city’s recreation department and quietly asked that the coach of the city softball team choose a non-denominational prayer to begin their games instead of the Lord’s Prayer from the New Testament. They expressed their daughter’s uncomfortable choice – either obviously be the only girl at the pitcher’s mound not praying or be obviously standing on the sidelines during the prayer. They were not aggressive in their request, nor did they threaten any action against the city. They wanted a quiet resolution to the problem and had approached the head of the recreation department privately to avoid calling attention to the situation.
At the very next softball game, their daughter was boo’ed off the field by the good Christian parents of the town.
I spent my first 14 years in New York, first in Queens, and then on Long Island in the first planned suburban development in America – Levittown. Long Island and its suburbs were an interesting social experiment and experience. Our parents had grown up in the segregated neighborhoods of a city that had welcomed immigrants from all over Europe. There was a Little Italy and German neighborhoods and a lower East Side filled with Russian emigrés. Commercial avenues separated the ethnic enclaves. But on Long Island, we were living side by side, mixing for the first time and trying to conform to the WASP ideal because conformity was the way of life in the 1950s. But there was one aspect of our lives in our perfect little cookie-cutter suburb that presented a conformity problem – our religions. Our parents had grown up in communities where one church or synagogue was the center of the community. They were unaccustomed to living side by side with people of other faiths. For the most part, they ignored it, a sort of “if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist” mentality.
But that didn’t work too well at school. Jewish kids got extra days off school because of the Jewish holidays. Catholic kids not only got extra days off, they got out of school an hour early every Wednesday to go to catechism classes. The Protestant kids resented both. Christmas was a mess. The Jewish kids were forced to participate in the Christmas pageant, and every time we had a new music teacher, the Catholic kids had to explain, again, that they couldn’t sing “Away in the Manger” because it was written by Martin Luther. It was in this environment that Jewish middle class families invented the Hanukkah bush, the protective camouflage un-Christmas tree, and put up blue and white outdoor lights. It was a minor way to rebel against conforming with Christianity while conforming with the neighbors.
New York was one of the first states (it might actually have been the first) to drop prayers from schools. It was like a collective “throw up your hands and surrender” moment. New York didn’t wait for the Supreme Court decision about school prayer. It accepted the impossibility of the idea of a single prayer in such a diverse population.
Did you know that there are religions that do not permit pledging allegiance to the flag? I first ran into this fact while teaching in Florida.
So, what was Paul Ryan thinking when he told a campaign volunteer in Provo, Utah, that he supported the idea of states deciding if there should be prayer in their schools? Did he miss the memo, the one from the Supreme Court? Does he think the Roberts Court will reverse that decision? Ryan told the volunteer, “That’s a constitutional issue of the states, moral responsibility of parents, education.” Yeah, it’s a Constitutional issue. It’s called the First Amendment. The volunteer, Jenny Free, is hoping to push school prayer in Utah, and Ryan told her “You know, in Utah, I would think you would have a pretty good chance.”
Mitt Romney also supports more prayer in schools, though he’s “not looking for teachers to have pray every day in the classroom, but I do think at special ceremonies – graduation, football games and the like, that calling on our creator is a good idea.” He also believes we should have more “religious ornamentation” in the public square.
The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Ryan was taking the position that a state can do what Congress cannot. However, since the 1920s a series of Supreme Court decisions have used the doctrine of incorporation to extend the guarantees of the First Amendment to all states, based on the provisions of the Fourteen Amendment, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protections of the laws.”
Americans talk about how our ancestors came to this country for freedom of religion. They’ve actually got that bassackwards. In Germany, in the 1700s, Catholics could worship as they chose, they just couldn’t hold good jobs or vote. In the United Kingdom, beginning in the 1600s, Catholics could worship as they chose, they just couldn’t vote, hold public office, own more than £50 worth of property or belong to a trade guild. In France and Spain, Protestants could worship as they chose, they just….well, you get the idea. It was never an issue of being able to worship, it was an issue of not being granted equal civil rights because of the official religions of the countries they came from. It was also an issue of the rules of one church being incorporated into the secular laws of a nation. The reason our Constitution bans the establishment of a religion before granting freedom of worship is because the men who wrote it understood that one cannot have freedom OF religion unless one has freedom FROM a state religion.
When my paternal grandmother was a young mother, she and her son were abandoned by her husband, left destitute and dependent upon the charity of her relatives. She could not divorce him or have him pursued for restitution of her property and inherited money because in the Dominican Republic, Catholic canon law was civil law. Eventually, she met my grandfather and became his mistress. For the birth of their third child, my father, Abuela convinced my grandfather to bring her to America. She found all kinds of excuses not to go back to the DR and when he went back on one of business trips, she picked up the kids, moved to a new apartment, left no forwarding address and reinvented herself as a World War I widow. In 1921, alone in New York City, it was an incredibly brave thing to do. She was free, finally, completely free. She faced long years of working to support her children, but she was free. And it was she who taught me the difference between the cart and the horse in the First Amendment.
The fact that the Supreme Court decision about school prayer was the result of a lawsuit filed by an atheist has always been problematic. It turned the issue of school prayer into one of believers versus non-believers instead of what it really should have been, an issue of one religion being chosen over all others.
On June 7, 1797, the United States Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between the United States of America and the Bey and People of Tripoli of Barbery. It had be negotiated by Joel Barlow, a protegé of Thomas Jefferson. It was signed in draft by President George Washington and in its final form by President John Adams. It was published in every newspaper in the fourteen states and no objections were raised anywhere. Article 11 of the Treaty says “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” It was a bold statement. It set us apart from Europe with its centuries of animosity towards Islam and Muslims. It was also a step beyond the First Amendment. It stated categorically that we are not a nation built on any particular form of faith, even though as a nation we have always acknowledged the role of faith in our lives.
I have never expected anyone else to teach my children my values or my faith. I don’t expect a public school to teach my children how to talk to a Higher Entity. I don’t expect a public school to teach my children morality. At the same time, I don’t want a public school to teach my children someone else’s faith or morals. I trust my ability to teach my children and raise them to my standards.
The question is this – why don’t the allegedly most religious among us trust their own ability to raise and guide their own children and expect the state to do it for them?