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Keeping God out of schools

Let's all join hands, bow our heads and pray to my God.

You say you don't want to worship my deity? Tough. This is my column, I'm in charge and you're going to do it my way, get it?

Before you think I've lost my mind, let me say I'm just trying to prove a point.

While reading the preceding lines, didn't you feel uncomfortable? Angry, even?

That's because a person's religion is a personal matter, and few people sit still while their faith is challenged or someone else tries to force their beliefs on them.

Your right to worship whoever or whatever you please is a foundation of our democracy, the reason why the church and government were so clearly separated in law.

It's also the premise of a debate that's developed nationwide, including here in Citrus County, over the role of religion in public schools. The current round of that debate focuses on the saying of prayers at graduations.

On June 4, a minister stood before the Lakeview School graduates, combined an invocation with a benediction and landed on the front page of this newspaper. The story noted that his actions apparently violated the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling prohibiting school-sponsored prayers.

There have been questions, some from within our newsroom, whether this event warranted this attention. All the minister did was say a few words thanking God for helping these nine terrific students and their families _ both at home and at school _ complete that long, tough journey that brought them to center stage.

There was also a fear on our part that this story would draw attention away from the recognition these super young men and women so richly deserve.

But before anyone dismisses this as just another example of "gotcha" journalism, there are a few points to remember.

First, the easy one. The reporter was absolutely correct in writing the story. When you're a reporter at a government function and you witness a law knowingly being violated, you write about it, especially when it involves a national issue.

The larger question, though, is why is this an issue? So what if the kids and their parents and teachers said a prayer? We should be thrilled in this day and age when someone remembers to recognize God's hand in these successes. And if this violates the Supreme Court's ruling, too bad. We don't agree with the court on this one.

The answer is that once you start blurring the line between the public schoolhouse and the church, you're asking for problems.

Let's not kid ourselves, there's plenty of religion and morals quietly being taught today in the Citrus County school system. No adult can spend five or six hours a day, week in and week out for nine months without imparting his value system to the students.

Parents seem to be comfortable with this arrangement, but how pronounced must these subtle sermons become before anyone notices? The feeling seems to be that these religious expressions are okay because the majority of those in attendance say they're okay. But how do we know that? Does anyone ask?

How many in the audience at these school events secretly squirm but keep their silence because they don't want to make a public scene and embarrass their children?

And what if the person giving the invocation at commencement had burned incense and chanted mantras? Would we still say that was okay?

There's a good reason why the law keeps church and government apart. It's the only way to protect the rights of the minority from being steamrolled by the majority.

But the most important thing to remember in all of this is that, like it or not, this is the law.

Hey, I don't like the 55-mph speed limit, and I'd just as soon not pay taxes. But we don't get to pick and choose which laws we want to obey. If you don't like this law, work to change it. Lobbyists do it every day.

Seems to me the place for teaching your kids your values and your morals is in your home. Teach them your religion in your church. But leave our schools, in all of their venues, for reading and writing.

We all can agree to follow different paths to heaven, but here on Earth, in this country, we still must follow the same laws.