- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

I'm not sure whether to call it a case of teen-age or adult rebellion, mainly because it's both in little ol'' Greenbrier, Ark., where the school board now has joined the kids in making prayer a public spectacle.
The school board heated things up by passing a resolution in favor of "student-led, student-initiated prayer" at football games. Which effectively made those prayers not just student-led or student-initiated, but officially endorsed and established.
It was the school board's way of defying last year's Supreme Court decision about prayers at school events.
Not that there isn't a lot to criticize about that intemperate 6-3 decision. Like its indiscriminate sweep, its lack of both clarity and subtlety, and for that matter its outspoken animus toward religion in general. All of which some of us lamented at the time. I entitled my criticism of it "The Almighty State: The prayer-free zone grows."
By banning religious expression in public schools, the court didn't so much separate church and state as choose sides. Here was a case that required thought and judgment and tolerance. Instead, speaking for the state, the court simply declared: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Granted, it was a hard case and, as the lawyers say, hard cases make bad law. But bad law is still law, and should be respected till the court has second and better thoughts. As it regularly does.
Instead, pre-game prayers at Greenbrier, Ark. and places like it across the country now have become the heated stuff of political and legal controversy. You would think high school football was already enough of a religion in these latitudes without throwing the prayer issue into the mix.
This whole teapot tempest has about it a whiff of the bad old days, when Southern governors used to bait the courts over racial issues for political fun and profit.
Now the fight is over religion, which is scarcely less combustible an issue. (See hot spots around the globe, from Northern Ireland to the Taliban's realm in Afghanistan.) The effect is to reduce prayer, which ought to elevate and unite, and humble, to a cheap provocation. I'm not sure whether faith or law is more demeaned by this kind of exhibition.
If the members of this school board were serious about challenging the law, they would do it through the law by opening a kind of student Hyde Park, a free-speech zone before the football game. They'd figure out a way to let any kid take the mike and say anything he or she wanted, prayerful or not, before the game within the bounds of decency and good sportsmanship. That kind of policy might pass constitutional muster.
Having helped rear a couple of adolescents, and having been one myself once upon a time, I'd bet these kids would have plenty of interesting, if embarrassing, things to say if given free rein. Or isn't the school board interested in allowing the kids that much freedom?
One suspects that the school board is in favor of freedom only for the speech it favors namely, nice, safe, officially blessed prayer. Heck, anybody's in favor of freedom for the ideas we approve of. That's not freedom, it's just an echo. As a Supreme Court justice from another era put it, it is freedom for the thought we hate that is the test of our tolerance.
But instead of searching for a solution within the law, this school board has chosen to create another problem. That's unfortunate. Because if we're not careful, those with fervent beliefs on both sides of this issue are going to force all of us into a kind of European-style, never-ending war between the secular and religious.
The genius of the American separation of church and state is that it has allowed all of us to live and let live. And we've done that by living within the law, rather than defying it.
Rules need to be respected even when we don't like them as any good teacher, principal or school board member knows. And the law is a set of rules for the whole country.
It's not necessary to agree with the law for a society to hold together, but it is necessary to cherish, honor and obey it. American society is a kind of marriage with the law, and infidelity always exacts a price.
Those who choose defiance over respect for the law, to quote the Church Lady on the old "Saturday Night Live" show, must think they're spe-cial. As if the rules weren't made for them, not in this special instance, anyway. Because their cause is so holy, or they're so important, or for some other reason that seems perfectly plausible for the moment, even heroic.
Unfortunately, adolescent defiance is not confined to adolescents.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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