WHY KIDS IN GALVESTON HAVEN'T A PRAYERIf you want to know what to think about this week's Supreme Court prayer decision, just do this little experiment: Pretend that Congress just passed a law forbidding student-led prayers before school football games. Can you imagine a more direct and frontal assault on the First Amendment than that?
How can it be legitimate for one branch of the federal government (the Supreme Court) to create a law that would be a flagrant constitutional violation for another branch (the legislature) to make? But thanks to Clinton's appointees to this Supreme Court, who have tipped the balance dramatically against religious expression in the public square, the kids in Galveston haven't got a prayer.
In this decision, a 6-3 majority did not so much confirm any reasonable interpretation of the First Amendment as rather explicitly read into the Constitution '50s WASP gray-flannel elite etiquette: Its ruuuude to discuss religion in polite society, because it upsets folk so.
The majority worried that public religious expression "encourages divisiveness along religious lines in a public school setting" and may "increase (the minority's) sense of isolation and affront."
How can the Supreme Court recognize that the tiny minority of secularists could be damaged by even nonsectarian prayer and then abuse its power to impose a regime of secularism on every school event? Using the force of law to teach children that religion must be kept private is at least as much an establishment of religion as seeming to approve of student prayer.
Folks in Galveston who were trying in good faith to find a constitutional way to let kids pray at football games were treated by the majority with all the summary contempt the court once reserved for racists trying to circumvent Brown v. Board of Education. "We do not need to wait for the inevitable to confirm and magnify the constitutional injury," sniffed Justice John Paul Stevens, explaining why the policy was struck down before the court had a chance to see whether in practice it resulted in religious unfairness.
What do the nine robed justices propose doing if a kid in Galveston gets near a microphone and utters the word "God"? Tar and feather him? Kick him out of school? Arrest him? This is how we teach our kids tolerance for religious difference?
"The choice between whether to attend these games to risk facing a personally offensive religious ritual is in no practical sense an easy one," Justice Stevens pontificated. Oh yeah? I've been exposed to a lot of different prayers, what with a New Age mom, nonreligious siblings, my own Catholic faith, a Buddhist sister-in-law, and a whole pack of Hindu relations (including my husband). I can't imagine taking offense because they pray to God in their own way, not mine. Far from promoting religious tolerance, the court in this decision endorsed religious bigotry, the kind of WASPY bigotry that Frederick Streets, chaplain at Yale University, explicitly endorsed the next day in a letter to The New York Times: "Every citizen must be able to attend public events free of feeling imposed upon by any expression of religion or its practice." Keep your religion in church where it belongs. What? Did you think this was a free country?
People who choose to be offended by others' diverse attempts to gain the favor of the divine, simply because they pray differently or not at all, should be exposed for the illiberal, intolerant, small-minded bigots they are, not catered to by the Supreme Court. The words "separation of church and state" never appear in the Constitution, but the "free exercise" of religion is our explicitly guaranteed birthright.
(Readers may reach Maggie Gallagher at GallagherIAV@Yahoo.com.)
COPYRIGHT 2000 MAGGIE GALLAGHER