Prayer isn't the problem, but panderers sure are

I'm tempted to shout. I feel like screaming.

A few days after reading about the state Senate's approval of a bill that will open the door for any district to allow prayer at school events, I want to lay waste to the whole sordid affair.

It's just that the right words don't seem to be coming.

Maybe that's because prayer, by itself, is far from being the problem. It is those who would use it as an instrument, or even a weapon, for selfish purposes.

And that's what this bill feels like. It feels like pandering on the part of legislators. And it feels like bullying by the supposedly righteous among us.

The gist of the Senate bill is that individual districts could adopt policies that allow an "inspirational message" to be delivered by students at school functions.

It's an important distinction that students would be in charge of these inspirational messages because the courts have long ruled that teachers and officials cannot organize or promote religious services or prayers at school functions.

So this bill, in essence, is an end run around the Supreme Court.

The bill's supporters will insist that it is a question of religious freedom. They will complain that this country is going to hell because prayer has been outlawed.

But that's a dishonest argument. Prayer is not forbidden in schools. A child can say a prayer of thanks before eating lunch. A math student can pray for direction before a difficult test, and a football player can pray for strength before a big game.

The distinction the courts has made is for organized, public prayer. And that makes perfect sense in a country based on freedom that has welcomed varied cultures, beliefs and religions for more than two centuries.

For the Christian may not be interested in a Hebrew prayer. And the Jew may not have interest in a Muslim prayer. And the agnostic may not care about any of the above.

The bottom line is that a school is not designed to be a place of public worship. You wouldn't grab a microphone at a religious service to explain the Pythagorean theo­rem, so why does it make sense to put prayer on display at a public school function?

So, no, this isn't a matter of religious freedom. It is a question of common courtesy and common sense. Besides, those who scream loudest about freedom almost always seem to be the most intolerant people in a room.

The good news in all of this is there has not been a lot of momentum for an accompanying bill in the House, and time is starting to run out in this session. Critics also say the Senate bill will not stand up to judicial scrutiny.

And yet, even as I type those words, I feel conflicted. Because I truly believe prayer is a good thing. It can be healthy. It can be comforting. And, yes, it can be inspirational.

But it does not need to be foisted upon those who feel differently, and it does not need to be lobbied into our public schools.

So don't cheapen prayer. Don't make it a political tool.

Don't twist or bend an amendment to make it fit, and don't study judicial decisions to find some tiny loophole to be exploited.

Don't hijack prayer from our churches and homes.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

Prayer isn't the problem, but panderers sure are 02/06/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 6, 2012 9:18pm]

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