Every day throughout my Neshoba Central stint, until I graduated in 1979, some young person would come on the loud speaker and say a prayer. Put more accurately, a student would clear his or her throat through the crackly speakers and start reading "The Lord's Prayer." Inevitably, the kid sounded bored, and it seemed that few of us paid very close attention to the daily prayer that the teachers and administration pushed on us.
We weren't exactly inspired by this canned, forced prayer. And some of us, at least by the time we were in high school, knew that it was unconstitutional—because the government (which a public school is part of, like it or not) is not supposed to force students to listen to a prayer. Not a Muslim one. Not a Jewish one. Not a Christian one.
Some really smart people knew that when they wrote the First Amendment, which includes two intertwining clauses to ensure that no one abridges our freedom of religion by trying to establish their own. Put simply, the government doesn't get to pick or establish or force any particular faith or its prayers and practices, because that obviously endangers freedom of religion for all of us.
This is an integral part of what it means to be American. So many of our ancestors became immigrants to the new world in the first place due to religious persecution back home. And much of that persecution was coming from someone claiming to be Christian of one flavor or another.
They came here, in part, to worship free from government interference. And when they got here and got settled, they set up a U.S. Constitution to prevent that kind of religious dogma from happening again.
But that's not what the school-prayer warriors tell us.
Instead, they twist and scheme and lie about basic American history and civics to get an official government-sanctioned prayer on public-school loud speakers or at assemblies or even at the start of each class.
That way, they tell us, God will be in the classroom. What most of them are really trying to do is to get votes from voters who don't understand this basic American principle of religious freedom. In other words, they want votes from people who want the government to help them push their own particular religious beliefs on others.
I hate to tell them, but the God many of us believe in does not need a canned prayer on the loud speakers in order to be in school, a classroom or anywhere else. And what kind of message does it send to children to act like He (or She, if you prefer) does?
It also teaches an uneducated lesson to stand up and scream that children need to be able to pray in schools—when anyone with half a brain knows that anyone can pray anytime they want. I do, and I know many of you do, too. You know, lying in bed, driving the car, climbing the front stairs to the office, climbing a steep roller-coaster hill, right before I get on a jet ski, when we go to the post office for checks.
The right lesson is that we don't need a piped-in, government-approved prayer to be faithful and spiritual.
What is remarkable is that so many of the people who demand school prayer in public schools are actually anti-government types, or say they are. They don't want the government to give "entitlements" or protect the rights of people who do not believe, or love, the same way. Often they don't want the government to regulate business safety or require a minimum wage.
But they are willing to entrust this government that they hate with the power to choose one American's preferred prayer over another and one religion over another in our schools and other public spaces.
How does this make a lick of sense?
Of course, these folks assume that the government will, of course, lean their direction and pick their prayer (forgetting how vehemently Christians fought each other back in the days when America was founded). But consider this: Why should a free government that we all pay into support the beliefs of some over others? Even if a majority of Christians could even agree, those who understand the Constitution know that it is never about the majority—it is about one person's rights to believe, worship, speak, publish and exercise this remarkable freedom we Americans enjoy. Not just collectively, but as individuals with our own ideas and opinions.
The U.S. Constitution is brilliant, and we must guard it at all cost. Likewise, if we believe in what America stands for, we must up for that one single child who is not Christian and who does not want to hear The Lord's Prayer or any other prayer on the loudspeaker every day. Her family paid for that speaker, too, and the walls around her and the desk she sits at.
The government, on behalf of a momentary majority, cannot be allowed to push a religion or a prayer on her. Sadly, tyranny is often pushed by the "majority" and even, too often, in the name of one religion or another, including Christianity. Remember the so-called Christian soldiers, the Ku Klux Klan, who quoted the Bible and prayed to God at rallies where they planned violence against African Americans. Yes, that happened right here in a Mississippi where the majority voted to close the public schools rather than follow federal law to integrate them.
Folks, the "majority" isn't always right.
My intense respect for the U.S. Constitution, including my belief in freedom of each of us to worship as we please, is exactly why I will stand against any establishment of religion by the government. Yes, that includes putting a creche in front of City Hall. Yes, that includes school-sanctioned religion activities. Yes, that includes public schools and universities saying an organized collective prayer before classes and meetings.
If we want America to continue to be great and free, we must respect and fight to maintain every single person's constitutional rights. And that means each of us needs to stand firm against anyone trying to push their own personal theocratic dream on our schools and our government institutions. It's wrong, and it's un-American.
I recently visited the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C., and watched a group of young people freely bowing their heads and praying near the statue, even as his engraved words about religious freedom circled them above, showing the great American juxtaposition at its finest. I'll leave you with Jefferson's words from a letter he wrote in 1802 to the Baptists of Danbury, Conn.:
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."