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Jewish World Review Sept. 6, 2000 / 5 Elul, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Quarterback sneak: Prayer under the lights -- GIVE the Supreme Court credit. The high court's draconian warning against outward signs of prayer in, near or around public schools seems to have unleashed a small religious revival. The dissenting chief justice said the majority's decision bristled with hostility toward religion, and sure enough, it provoked a reaction. Prayer has broken out all across the Bible Belt in connection with the really established religion in these latitudes: football.

Nothing seems to remind folks, young and old, of the value of religious expression like its being forbidden. The court's decision seems to have had the effect of telling kids not to put beans in their ears: It's given them the idea. Show up at a high school football game south of the Mason-Dixon these days, and, with all the bowed heads reciting the Lord's Prayer, you might think you'd taken a wrong turn and wandered into a funeral.

Rather than the stuffy, stained-glass kind of religion that adults impose on kids, prayer is becoming a form of mischief, a kind of defiance of authority, a wild pass downfield. Talk about a Hail Mary. What healthy teenager could resist? Dadgum if the learned justices aren't masters, if not of jurisprudence, then of reverse psychology. At last, kids can be rebels with a cause.

These prayers, being voluntary, may satisfy even the court's own strict rules -- which means the kids can have the satisfaction of getting away with something, too. In addition to its other benefits, the Supreme Court's decision is fast making rather sophisticated constitutional lawyers of high-schoolers. Many of them have become aware of the distinction between voluntary prayer in public, which is still kosher, and publicly supported prayer, which isn't.

It's the difference between freedom of religion, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment, and an establishment of religion, which it forbids.

It's not always easy drawing the line between the First Amendment's two religion clauses. One suspects we're going to get graduating classes just full of budding legal scholars ready to argue the question, not to mention preachers in the making, now that law and religion turn out to be the kind of fun that bugs grown-ups. It's all enough to make one suspect that all things work for the good.

So exactly when does religion, freedom of, morph into religion, establishment of? Simple, according to the Supreme Court: When the school's public address system is used. Yes, that seems to be the bright line for the the Hon. Brilliances who issued the Supreme Court's 5-to-4 opinion in this mangled case.

So if a private outfit provided the sound equipment? That's the kind of nitpickin' reactions that nitpickin' decisions produce. Say, what if the volunteers saying the prayers were to go mikeless? After all, they say God can hear the softest prayers, even our unspoken ones. And that is the purpose of these prayers, isn't it, to pray to God? Or is it just to make a political point?

Faith can be a perverse thing. Make it official by royal order, give it a government stipend, turn priests into civil servants, and religion largely shrivels to ceremony, as in England and in many another ``advanced'' industrial nation. But persecute its disciples, drive the church underground, as in the now defunct Soviet enterprise or in still tottering Communist China, and faith thrives.

Every time the authorities in Beijing issue another decree against the Falun Gong and arrest a few more of its leaders, the sect seems to acquire another million adherents. Declare prayer illegal in this country, and it revives.

There are two ways to suppress the religious spirit of man. The first and futile way is to oppress and vilify it, and reduce its official expression to a few bought priests. This is the Soviet way, and it isn't nearly as effective as the American way, which is to make religion semi-official, a required ceremony, a sign of respectability and worldly attainment. Faith then becomes the worship of the great god Success, and no longer thrives in adversity.

Issue a court decision that bristles with hostility toward religion, declare prayer an anti-social act, and something in man rebels, and he returns to first things. It's a familiar social phenomenon: Arrest a poet, as in China, and everybody wants to read him. Make poetry part of the curriculum, as in America, and the kids are bored to death.

Faith can be a perverse thing, but not nearly so perverse as efforts to suppress it. Let the state declare that thou shalt have no other gods besides it, and folks start praying in the stands. Who knows, this Supreme Court may have found a way to start another Great Awakening. G-d save that honorable court. It, too, may have worked for the good.

Do these pregame prayers represent anything more than a natural reaction to an over-reaching government? Will they prove only a political rather than a religious witness? Are they just another teenage fad or something more lasting? Are they an act of faith or just kids showing off?

Well, by their fruits you shall know them. Nobody seems to object to the Mennonites when, using public highways, they descend after every tornado hereabouts to clean up and fix up. Their witness is certainly effective. Now that's prayer.

May the Supreme Court of the United States in its wisdom now produce as great a cloud of witnesses to His glory -- and may these young people's service be of the heart and hand, as well as the lips. Amen and Play Ball!

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate