Ah, Arkansas, you sweet, silly, overreacting bunch of religious zealots, who, being unable to have everything exactly your way, decided to pick up your marbles (what remains of them, anyway,) and go home in a huff.
My friend Timmy posted this article about a news event taking place in his fair state. Evidently, an anonymous complainer didn’t care for there being a prayer planned for the 6th-grade graduation, so, in a precious display of spite no doubt meant to imply “you infidels are why we can’t have anything nice!” graduation was canceled. Not just the prayer part; the whole thing.
Leaving aside the questionable and relatively new tradition of “6th-grade graduation”…(When exactly did this start? And when did it go all the way down to kindergarten graduation? You’ve survived one lousy year of school, half of which was spent on naps, stories, snacks, and recess, and you need an Event? Talk to me when you’ve put in 13, and I might be impressed. When was it decided that the end-of-school party that takes place in pretty much every classroom in America wasn’t enough? When some bunch of helicopter parents couldn’t get over the potential twee adorableness of their spawn in tiny mortarboards and gowns? You know what happened when I finished 6th grade? I went to junior high in the fall. That’s it.)…it seems reasonable enough that in secular public schools, if a teacher cannot lead her/his class in prayer, doing so at a graduation-type event is probably uncool as well. Not to mention unconstitutional.
Because, despite all the gnashing of teeth and protestations of the pro-prayer parents about their “rights” being quashed, their Constitutional rights only grant them the right to pray (or not) as they wish without government interference or prohibition. They have no right whatsoever to make other people pray (or not) as they do as a group. I don’t know why this is such a difficult concept for people. I really don’t. Your rights, such as they are, end precisely at the point where mine begin. There is absolutely nothing stopping anyone from praying whenever they want, as much as they want, and communing privately with their Lord, or the deity of their choice. Have at it. I could be praying right now; you don’t know. (Well, you could probably guess, but nonetheless, you don’t know for sure.)
Those who need to have group prayer in public, regardless of the myriad spiritual leanings of that hypothetical group, are more interested in spectacle than spirituality, and it’s my understanding that Jesus wasn’t all that impressed with such behavior: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)
What’s funny is that I went to Catholic school Kindergarten through 4th grade, and despite weekly Mass and religion classes, religion wasn’t nearly as big a deal there as it seems to be in public schools. Ditto when I taught in an Episcopal school. It was just one part of the day otherwise rounded out with all the other aspects of school life; it wasn’t a battleground, even though within the school we had children of all, and no, faiths attending.
When I was in high school in Lincoln, NE, there were 2 different graduation-type events–an interfaith (I guess?) service before graduation, and graduation. I thought that was a good way to handle it–if you wanted some kind of goduation, you could have it, but it wasn’t foisted upon anyone. Everyone who went was no doubt happy to be there. Anyone who didn’t was no doubt equally happy. Win-win.
At my college graduation, there was a prayer before the graduation stuff started, and frankly, I objected to it philosophically, because by then I was an atheist, and I’m sure there were others, not to mention that there was probably a pretty wide variety of spiritual paths represented amongst the 3,000 students from multiple countries graduating. But I didn’t make a fuss and went to graduation anyway, because it was tradition, because it was the Midwest and I knew most of the people around me didn’t object. I didn’t like it, but ultimately, it was not any skin off my nose, because I felt free to read the book I’d smuggled in under my robe for the boring parts.
And at a large college graduation, they’re all the boring parts.
But my first year teaching, I taught in a teeny-tiny town in Minnesota where everyone was Lutheran, where diversity meant that we had Swedes AND Norwegians, and no one batted an eye when my class erected a Christmas tree in my crappy basement classroom (the tree donated by a student whose father had cut too much off the trunk, according to his wife, and was forced to abandon it and go get another one), a dingy space notable for its probable asbestos-insulated ductwork and a lovely view of the dumpsters. And I was glad for religious homogeneity then, because we all loved that tree, (even this atheist who happens to love Christmas), and the room smelled good, and it made our pit of despair a little less desperate for a change.
Later, I taught in an Episcopal school, and every Thursday at Mass, we all had to go up for either communion (for Christian kids and staff who wanted to, regardless of sect) or a blessing (for the rest of us heathens). When the kids asked about those of us who didn’t take communion (including myself and the science teacher), we had a nice little lesson about how, in a civilized world, one can respect the traditions and rituals of others without necessarily having to believe in them or follow them in their own lives. When in Rome, it’s not unthinkable to do as the Romans do, and if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in Rome, it’s only smart and adaptive to learn the local customs, if not to follow them, at least to not rudely trample on them. You may not care for roses in your own garden, but that doesn’t mean you go stomping on everyone else’s in the neighborhood when you’re invited to their homes.
The problem, though, with the people complaining about their right to pray at a public school graduation is that they think that the entire American public sphere is their home, that everybody should have roses, and if they don’t want roses, too bad, they’re going to have roses because the complainers like roses, believe roses are the very best flower for everyone, and will not tolerate the least impediment to them having bouquets of roses by the bushel everywhere, regardless of anyone else’s allergies. Which shows an astounding lack of healthy boundaries, not to mention maturity. If you want to pray, pray. No one’s stopping you. Unless you insist that we all pray with you, and like you. And even then, we’re still not stopping you from praying; we’re just stopping your attempts to bully us into joining you. It is an eminently reasonable position, and throwing a hissy fit over it, and canceling the entire graduation over it, only goes to show how petty and unreasonable your objections are.
Again, it’s this simple: If you do not want your government coming into your church, telling you what to believe and how to worship, then you should be first in line to object to your church telling your government what to believe and how to govern based on that. Once that door opens, it will swing both ways.