Posts Tagged ‘N.Y.’

Praying in Public

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

By Jeffrey Page

There’s a new religious war being waged upstate. This one concerns prayer at town board meetings.

I used to think that the people who brought the inevitable court actions to outlaw public prayer or ban the display of Christmas trees on public property had too much time on their hands.

What was the big deal? I thought. Christmas is a happy holiday that’s close to the hearts of the majority of Americans. And if we want to get technical, we should remember that aside from its religious importance, Christmas also happens to be a national holiday. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. Anyway, trees are one thing, but I admit I had second thoughts about the appearance of crèches on public lawns, but managed to get over them.

It made no sense to me that the argument was about a Scotch pine trimmed with colored balls and an angel. Would placing this tree on public property bring down the republic? Not when you remember that witnesses in court use a bible to swear they will be truthful, that the House and Senate open their sessions with prayers, that it’s a Bible our presidents touch as they’re sworn into office.

I’ve been at the receiving end of unrequested religion. In my grade school, we were forced to listen to Christmas carols. I survived. But somewhere in the last several decades I changed my mind and believe absolutely that religion belongs in houses of worship and in the human heart, not in places owned by the public and certainly not in schools filled with young minds but possessing no power to object.

In the Fifties, I attended P. S. 33 in Bellerose, a heavily Christian neighborhood in Eastern Queens. Every year during the 10 days leading up to Christmas, the glee club would parade slowly through the corridors singing carols, ranging from the innocuous, such as “Jingle Bells” to the significant, such as “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

As the singers came, we were herded into the halls to listen. We were allowed to sing along, which I did. I liked the music although I was confused about this business about “born is the king of Israel.”

No one at P.S. 33 ever tried to convert me, no one ever questioned my religion, and no one ever suggested I be barred from the class Christmas party. Similarly, of course, no teacher ever wished me a happy Hanukkah, and if any of the mothers of the Jewish kids ever offered to make potato pancakes and tell the story of Hanukkah, I didn’t know about it.

I still like Christmas carols and the old spirit of the holiday, but there’s no question that years ago in Bellerose, I attended a school that put the First Amendment on its ear by officially establishing a religion. It was a terrible thing to do to a class of kids, but I didn’t get it then.

In the newest case, the governing board of the Town of Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, started in 1999 to open its meetings with a prayer. The town has answered critics with the argument that you don’t have to be a Christian to lead the prayer. In fact, The Times reported, anyone, even an atheist, could say the opening prayer. Where you’re going to find an atheist to lead a prayer is beyond me.

But I think the very use of official time, to accommodate a prayer is, in fact, what the founders had in mind when they cautioned: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

I think the prayer and its defense are not quite as benign as the Town of Greece would have us believe. “Establishment” of an official religion doesn’t have to be done with a gun to your head. It can be an arm of local government informing you that what’s needed for the Town Board to do its business is a word or two from God. And it can be an invitation to wait outside in the lobby if you’re offended by an officially sanctioned prayer service.

No question that what they did in Greece was to establish and exclude in one fell swoop. Two townswomen challenged the Town Board prayers, and were upheld by a federal appellate court, which found that few prayers in Greece were led by anyone but Christians, and that, as reported by The Times, “roughly two-thirds contained references to ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘your son,’ or ‘the holy spirit.’”

The case is now headed to the Supreme Court where, on the day of the arguments, the court’s marshal will intone: “God save the United States and this honorable court.”