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Jewish World Review June 4, 1999 /20 Sivan, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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An answered prayer

(JWR) ---- (
FOR NEARLY 40 YEARS, a small but determined minority of Americans have driven religion from the public square, successfully suing to ban organized prayer, Bible or Torah reading in public schools, to remove religious holiday symbols from public property, and to prohibit invocations or benedictions at state-sponsored, public ceremonies.

Last week, a group of public-school parents and students fought back by exercising their First Amendment-protected right to free speech by spontaneously praying aloud during graduation ceremonies for Northern High School in Calvert County, Md.

As The Washington Post reported the event: "It started with a loud, clear voice, a man's voice. And it spread quickly through the hall, picking up the tenors of teen-age boys, whispers of young girls and throaty voices of grandmothers. With each word, it grew more determined." By the time it was over, more than half of the crowd of 4,000 had joined in reciting the Lord's Prayer.

No one -- least of all anyone associated with the school or other government agency -- organized the prayer. Nor was anyone required to say the prayer, which -- though non-denominational in content, with no specifically Christian references -- is part of the Christian tradition having been taught first by Jesus to his disciples. Nonetheless, an official of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union warned that "the real loser here is the Constitution and the right of people to express dissent."

Wrong. The parents and students of Northern High School who prayed aloud were expressing dissent --- dissent from four decades of ACLU-instigated jurisprudence aimed at limiting and circumscribing their religious expression. In fact, the school had for a number of years allowed a student-led prayer in their commencement exercises until one student brought in the ACLU to protest the inclusion of prayer this year.

The school agreed to a compromise, allowing the student who wished to say a prayer at the ceremony to deliver a call for a "time for reflection" that didn't mention God. But when the time came, the moment of silence was transformed by the audience itself into the recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

No doubt some in the audience were offended, including the young man who had objected to the invocation in the first place, who expressed his anger by leaving the auditorium. Unfortunately, the security guards refused to allow the boy to re-enter the building to retrieve his diploma, citing district-wide policy that prohibits students who leave school functions for any reason from re-entering.

School officials then compounded this mistake by barring the boy from attending a school-sponsored party that same evening, saying they feared he would disrupt the event. True tolerance would have respected both the right of the audience to initiate a prayer and the right of anyone in the audience to refuse to join in.

The Washington Post, which had been measured and fair in its news coverage of the event, turned surly in its editorial, accusing the audience of incivility in "interjecting religious worship into the county's secular educational life." But many Americans -- 67 percent according to the most recent polls -- want to return to the tradition of public prayer that was commonplace before the 1962 Supreme Court decision striking down school prayer. What many Americans object to is the intolerance and incivility of a powerful minority of persons who would impose on everyone else their own desire to banish religion from the public square.

The First Amendment declares "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Surely, a crowd of more than 2,000 persons spontaneously intoning an ancient prayer in a public setting is not a violation of either the letter or the spirit of this most important of our constitutional freedoms.

The parents and students of Calvert County may have found the perfect way for the majority to exercise their rights to express their religious beliefs in a public setting without infringing on the rights of a minority not to join with them.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate