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More than a graduation prayer

Let me tell you a little about my experience with mixing church and schools. In rural Georgia, where I grew up, it was sometimes difficult to know which was which.

In the fifth grade, the principal, who also preached in any church that would have him, offered to excuse absences from school as long as the students attended the weeklong spring revival service at the local Baptist church. There were many takers, not all of whom made it to church. Some slipped into the woods and spent the day swimming in the river.

In the seventh grade, I prayed for judicial intervention. The teacher, who also preached in any church that would have him, picked us off one by one. When the bell rang for recess he would single out a student and ask him or her to join him for prayer and Bible reading in the front seat of his car in the school parking lot. I hate to think of how many of my recess hours this guy used up.

In high school, church attendance had its rewards. There were two ways to pass math. You could either learn math or you could go to church. On Monday morning the teacher, who also preached in any church that would have him, asked his students to raise their hands if they had gone to church on Sunday. Those who raised their hands got an "A" that day. You would have thought from the showing of hands that local churches were bulging with math students. Some students simply lied. This particular math class became a joke.

This graduation season has revived the issue of school prayer, and I know a lot of people are confused and outraged by Supreme Court rulings on church-state separation. Nearly everything is allowed in our public schools except religion. High schools hand out condoms and confiscate illegal drugs and weapons. Teenagers can choose to have abortions without telling their parents, but they can't choose to pray at their graduations.

What's going on here? Is our country going to hell because the U.S. Supreme Court has stripped religion from public life in the name of separation of church and state? Why can neo-Nazis hold a rally in the public square but a Christmas manger scene is forbidden in the same space? Why can Congress open its sessions with prayer but school kids can't even have a moment of silent meditation?

These questions are at the center of the raging debate over church-state relations, and contrary to what some may think, the divide is not as simple as conservatives versus liberals, Democrats versus Republicans or the religious right versus the secular left.

There is tension even among the nine Supreme Court justices whose opinions decide these issues. The Constitution says nothing about "separation of church and state." What it does say is that government may make "no law respecting an establishment of religion" or prohibiting its "free exercise." The question at the core of this contentious issue is whether the courts have gone beyond upholding the establishment clause and interfered with the "free exercise" of religion.

The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution over the years to mean no state-approved prayers, no government subsidy of religion, no Bible reading in schools, no display of religious symbols on public property, no posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms and no clergy-led prayers at public school graduation ceremonies.

Last week the court handed down two opinions on church-state issues that indicate it is still struggling to balance the mandates of religious freedom with separation of church and state.

In a New York case, the court was unanimous and logical. The ruling was applauded by both conservative Christian groups and the American Civil Liberties Union. The court held that if public school facilities are open to community groups after hours, they also must be open to religious groups. The court decided this case on free-speech grounds.

In the second case, the justices refused to hear an appeal of a lower court decision permitting student-led prayers at public school graduations. Last year the high court ruled that clergy-led graduation prayers were unconstitutional. Pat Robertson and his agents will take advantage of the confusion in their campaign to put prayer back in the schools.

A prayer at a public school event is still a prayer, regardless of whether it is said by a student or a member of the clergy. The court should have made this clear.

The Supreme Court's church-state decisions have infuriated many Americans who see no harm in a little religious intrusion into public life. With all the problems besetting our public schools, they wonder if maybe spiritual revival is not part of the solution.

I think the problem is not in the schools but in our homes. That's where children learn values, and the sad fact is that in too many homes, if you can call them that, kids are learning the wrong values from their parents. It will take more than a graduation prayer to undo the damage.

Philip Gailey is editor of editorials of the Times.