Commentary: The unending battle over prayers in public schools

The Miami HeraldMarch 8, 2012 

Dear Lord, why is the Florida Legislature calling prayer by any other name? Inspirational messages?

Oh, beautiful for spacious skies. That’s an inspirational message — and a song ( America the Beautiful) that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney likes to sing.

In God we trust. That’s an inspirational message on our money, though the Founding Fathers — several of them deists who did not care for organized religion after the bloody wars of Europe’s Protestant Reformation — had nothing to do with putting God on our money. The motto appeared on U.S. coins starting in 1864 and on dollar bills in 1957.

Pledge of allegiance? “Under God” was added in 1954 to our “one nation.” What were we? A godless nation before that?

These wars over prayer have been fought throughout our history. And during this presidential election year, in particular, after years of questioning President Obama’s place of birth and his religion (Barrack “Hussein” Obama, named after his Kenyan father, remains the “suspect Muslim” president to certain Republicans), the GOP-led Florida Legislature, thanks to an Orlando Democrat, Sen. Gary Siplin, wants to make clear that public school students can give an inspirational message at school events and assemblies.

Dear Lord, that’s already allowed. It’s a Supreme Court ruling that ensures religious freedom for each student and whatever faith that child practices so long as school officials are not involved in helping any student craft the inspirational message or participates in that message.

And isn’t that really the issue, Lord? How can a public school hold an event without scripting it for students? It would make a principal or a teacher go nuts to not have control. And for good reason.

Dear Lord, what happens when a child whose parents don’t believe the Holocaust ever happened, serves up this “inspirational” message at the next assembly: “The Nazis were good Christians and the Jews are liars”?

Gov. Rick Scott offers this: “As you know, I believe in Jesus Christ and I believe individuals should have a right to say a prayer.”

Amen to that, governor. Pray on, but what happens when you visit a school and a child begins his inspirational message with “Dear Allah...”? A Christian wouldn’t want to pray to Allah, as much as a Jew would never pray to Jesus. This is a big, diverse state. Why are legislators so inspired with inspirational messages that may end up dividing more than uniting us?

The U.S. Constitution is a persnickety little thing. Actually, a persnickety big thing. It grants individual rights starting with the First Amendment’s freedom of religion, speech, assembly and petitioning government on any grievance. But for every one of those freedoms, each individual’s right has to be balanced against the other individual’s right, and when it comes to a child in a public school, no proselytizing.

A messy thing, that. So why do we need a law to mess things up further?

It reminds me of the Works (or Acts) of Mercy taught to Catholics (also followed by Methodists and Eastern Orthodox believers) as a way to experience God’s grace. There are the corporal works and the spiritual ones.

Let’s start with the spiritual ones: To instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses willingly, comfort the afflicted and pray for the living and the dead. How many legislators are on their way to grace, dear Lord? Is our governor?

Well, we certainly have had our fill of legislative admonishments, particularly toward women and our procreation abilities, from this godly gang in Tallahassee. Hey, but don’t touch their Viagra!

And the corporal works? To feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked, harbour the harbourless, visit the sick, ransom the captive and bury the dead.

I’ll give them the “burial” one but harboring the harbourless? Not if you’re an immigrant child whose family overstayed their visa. Ask Daniela Pelaez, who arrived with her Colombian family when she was 4. The Killian High School grad is smart and ready to head to college, but a judge wants her deported. Dear Lord!

Visit the sick? Sure, unless you’re a poor Medicaid patient at Jackson — the state wants you out pronto.

Feed, drink and clothe the needy? You’ve got to pee in a bottle first to prove you’re not a druggie under this year-old law to qualify for any state assistance if you’re out of work. And when you pass the pee test, remember that Florida is among the states that wants to cut back on the number of weeks you can get assistance.

Dear Lord, make them stop.

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