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Society may always grapple with prayer

(ran PW, PS editions of Pasco Times)

Thomas Jefferson considered his authorship of the Statute of Religious Freedom for Virginia one of his greatest achievements. He was also an ardent supporter of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free exercise of religion while prohibiting state-sponsored "establishment" of religion. It was our third president who created the powerful image of a "wall" of separation between church and state in the United States.

But it is clear this vexing issue will remain one of the nation's most pressing problems because each generation must determine the appropriate role of religion in society.

While such leaders as Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason were prime architects in making religious liberty a fundamental freedom in U.S. life, nothing permanent has been settled. Recent court cases in New York and Alabama strikingly illustrate the complexity of the issue.

In May, a federal district court in White Plains, N.Y., ruled the Bedford School District erred by permitting third-graders to make models of a Hindu god and by including New Age devotionals at an Earth Day assembly. Judge Charles L. Brieant III agreed with the Roman Catholic parents who originated the suit by ruling that the school should not have asked students to make "worry dolls," which some people believe can ward off evil spirits when left under a pillow.

Brieant called the worry dolls "a rank example of teaching superstition to children of a young and impressionable age." He rebuked a third-grade teacher's lesson on India in which 8-year-olds were asked to make paper representations of the Hindu god Ganesha. He found no "educational justification for telling young, impressionable students to construct images of a known religious god."

The judge was equally harsh on Earth Day school assemblies that asserted: "The mother of us all is the earth. The father is the sun." In prohibiting such programs, Brieant termed them "truly bizarre."

Interestingly, Brieant struck down only three of the 15 separate claims brought by the irate Catholic parents. The other 12 educational practices, including readings on the life of Buddha, yoga exercises, meditation and lectures on crystals, presented no constitutional problems for the judge. As in all such cases of mixed results, the parents and the school district both claimed victory.

In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled students in Alabama could pray on their school's public-address system and at graduations as long as school officials are not involved. The case began three years ago when a vice principal of an Alabama high school filed suit, contending any form of prayer permitted in a public school from whatever source was forbidden under the First Amendment.

This contention was upheld by a federal district court, but Fob James, Alabama's governor at the time, vigorously fought the ruling, saying the First Amendment did not apply to the state of Alabama. The issue became a focus for pro-prayer student demonstrations around the state. And some politicians, following James' lead, fiercely attacked the district court's decision.

The three-member appellate court unanimously overturned the lower court, arguing that "permitting students to speak religiously signifies neither state approval or disapproval _ the state acknowledges its constitutional duty to tolerate religious expression. Only in this way is true neutrality achieved."

But, as in New York, little seems to have been resolved by this decision.

Foes of prayer in public schools promise to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They called the court decision "unprincipled and unconscionable" because it permits students to use state facilities to foster their specific brand of religion. In a strange legal quirk, the latest ruling prevents coaches and other school officials from participating in such activities as the prayers of school athletic teams.

Student prayers yes! Faculty prayers no!

Now members of other religions who are required to attend school but don't share the beliefs of those who use the PA system will be captive to their fellow students' prayers. Because of the state's demography, most of the prayers in Alabama will be Protestant Christian in nature, but if the court ruling remains valid, I foresee a chaotic situation within public schools when Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, New Agers, Hare Krishnas, Wiccans, Mormons and a host of other religions will demand equal prayer time on the PA and at graduations.

Sadly, this kind of unnecessary spiritual competition can divide a community and lead to violence. It is precisely what Jefferson and his colleagues sought to avoid by their insistence on church-state separation.

_ Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.

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