- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Now that the high school football season is ending, reason begins to emerge all across the South, where this year prayer rivaled the homecoming court as an Extra Added Attraction.

It all began after the Supreme Court issued one of its increasingly intolerant decisions in the name of tolerance. This ruling limited even student-initiated prayers in public schools. So the school board in little Greenbrier, Ark., did its part to initiate some on its own. It adopted a resolution in favor of prayer at school functions, which in practice meant at football games.

No doubt this gave the school board some emotional satisfaction, but it's just the kind of thing that government should not be doing: establishing religion.

Now the school board is having second and cooler thoughts. And so is the board's attorney, who has done some "further research" and discovered the obvious: When the school system initiates, supports and endorses prayers, they're scarcely "student-led, student-initiated" anymore. They come with a government stamp of approval.

So the school board's lawyer is at work rewording the school policy, as he should be. It won't be easy. It's never easy to draw the line between recognizing freedom of religion and not establishing one, but it can be done if reason, not emotion, is allowed to emerge.

Anyway, says the school superintendent, the school board's "resolution was aimed at football games; there's not going to be any prayers at basketball games." It's one of the continuing theological mysteries: Why is football blessed in these latitudes but not basketball or baseball?

Like so many other aspects of this controversy, one suspects that the sanctified place of football has less to do with religion than with the local culture. And in terms of that culture, even to question some things is an act of heresy. They're just supposed to be understood, like why you're entitled to a meat-and-three on the blue plate at the Wagon Wheel or any other cafe in Greenbrier. If you have to ask why, you just don't understand the culture. And you'll probably be called a troublemaker.

In its own way, the Supreme Court of the United States can be just as arbitrary. Its latest decision on school prayer came dangerously close to a blanket ban on all public prayer at school functions. A majority of the justices seemed out not to separate church from state, but to wall off American society from any expression of religion a goal as impossible as it would be unconstitutional.

In this case out of Texas, Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe, the majority opinion by John Paul Stevens declared: "Worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere."

I'll try to remember that the next time a bailiff prays God to save this honorable court, or we hear the most hardened atheist join fervently in God Bless America. (Kate Smith probably converted more folks to patriotism than any learned sermon.)

At another point, Justice Stevens warned that prayer could be "a personally offensive religious ritual." He made it sound as if folks who witness to their faith were sacrificing their young. Or is that abortion, which is now a constitutional right? The things that will and won't offend the Supreme Court of the United States are a continuing mystery, too.

This latest decision on school prayer, as one of the dissenters put it, isn't just neutral on the subject of religion but actively hostile to it.

It is widely understood in a diverse society like ours that the majority must be tolerant of the minority and not try to impose its beliefs through the power of the state as when a school board decrees prayer. And turns it into a public spectacle by providing the stadium and the occasion, drumming up the crowd and even supplying the microphone.

It is not as widely understood that tolerance becomes those in the minority, too believers or nonbelievers. Folks out to save the rest of us aren't exactly a rarity in this country, and haven't been at least since the Great Awakening. It wouldn't hurt the rest of us to tolerate those who would witness to their faith; we might even learn something from them.

In any case, there's no need to make a federal case out of it. After all, it's a free country. The impulse to preach is as American as the impulse to flee preaching; they co-exist in the American psyche. And should be allowed to.

The constitutional problem arises when government does the proselytizing. As if the church needed the state's blessing. That's when the courts may need to step in. But in its zeal to ward off any establishment of religion, the Supreme Court has tended to overlook the rest of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of speech. In a lengthening series of decisions, the Supreme Court seems to be telling students they may express any opinions but religious ones.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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