There’s been some national coverage about the Cranston High School West (R.I.) prayer banner. Here is a link to the NY Times article. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/us/rhode-island-city-enraged-over-school-prayer-lawsuit.html?_r=1
The crux of the issue is that the High School has a fairly innocuous prayer, written by a child, on the wall of the school auditorium. A young woman, Jessica Ahlquist, ended up suing to have the prayer removed from the wall. A judge found in her favor. Appeals may follow.
Coming from a fairly religious family (Roman Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox) and having attended a Catholic college in RI, this situation draws a lot of my attention with it’s regional feel – one subtly different than others we’ve seen across the country.
It’s one of those fundamental American questions. How does a country built on the diverse strengths of its citizens (and their plurality of religious beliefs and ideas) allocate the public expression of those beliefs?
Privately, we enjoy the freedom of religion, but the issue becomes thorny when public monies are concerned. Current rhetoric in America focuses on “tax dollars” – who wants their tax dollars spend on something wasteful and/or that they don’t believe in? This kind of rhetoric is a useful proxy, but concept we should focus on is more fundamental than that.
Throughout history, countries with a plurality of religions have suffered from, or been destroyed by, religiously motivated violence. This is not to say that religion is inherently violent, but that what actually distinguishes one religion from another is a difference in the way one worships or what one believes in. Sometimes small “technical” differences are embraced by a culture, and thus while the religious differences “seem small” they are animated by two very different types of peoples with starkly different philosophies, e.g., intra-Protestant violence, intra-Catholic violence.
America was founded as a haven from religious violence (though we’ve had our share of it ourselves), and, as a consequence, we set ourselves up as a country that allowed for individual religious expression, but would have no official state sponsored religion that could marginalize other religions and beliefs.
Whenever I see a controversy like this it makes me wonder about education in America. Specifically something called “civics.” The concept is pretty simple:
1) If there is a public school which uses public money (drawn from everyone) no religious expression should be present on the part of the school.
2) If your school is private – go for whatever expressions of belief you want.
Granted, there are shades of gray in there, which is what we have courts for (if discussion and reasonable compromise fails). But what really bothers me is how many people just don’t “get” that basic concept.
The irony of this specific situation is that with some rewording, the basic concepts of the “prayer” would make an excellent school creed, or statement of values:
OUR HEAVENLY FATHER,
GRANT US EACH DAY THE DESIRE TO DO OUR BEST,
TO GROW MENTALLY AND MORALLY AS WELL AS PHYSICALLY,
TO BE KIND AND HELPFUL TO OUR CLASSMATES AND TEACHERS,
TO BE HONEST WITH OURSELVES AS WELL AS WITH OTHERS,
HELP US TO BE GOOD SPORTS AND SMILE WHEN WE
LOSE AS WELL AS WHEN WE WIN,
TEACH US THE VALUE OF TRUE FRIENDSHIP,
HELP US ALWAYS TO CONDUCT OURSELVES SO AS TO
BRING CREDIT TO CRANSTON HIGH SCHOOL WEST.
Kudos to the kid who wrote it. Kudos also to the young woman who asked that it not be placed on the wall of a publicly funded school. I’m not so pleased with the school board who didn’t think to modify it to be a statement of values that might be embraced by anyone, and instead decided to force litigation over the issue – an issue that they’re clearly in the wrong on.
On a much broader note, as an attorney, I’m kind of struck (daily) at how much litigation could be avoided if people learned to compromise. Granted, much litigation actually is avoided because of reasonable compromise, but I’m still somewhat taken aback by the posturing.
I truly believe that if America is to continue to survive and prosper, it has to not only embrace the framework of a non-religious constitution, but use that constitution as a skeleton muscled by the spirit of compromise. Has this slipped from our public dialogue? I think it has. I just don’t envision the following as a “contemporary” statement: “Well, I’m not completely for it, but it’s the best we can do to meet everyone’s needs and go forward.”
Surely there’s some virtue in having Private Reservations but Public Acceptance? Perhaps there still is some and I’m just not seeing it in our traditional, internet and social media? Perhaps our virtual methods of discourse skews us towards radical and reactionary statements? Maybe this is what will most strongly shape our future – the medium and method of interaction; wild ideas and absolute positions flying at each other without human voice or human eyes?
Thoughts for another day.