Rabbi Gary Creditor of Temple Beth-El in Richmond recounts a story of youthful rebellion. While sitting in a public school classroom as a child, the young Creditor dutifully memorized a psalm from the Bible to be recited in class. But when the teacher led the class in the Lord's Prayer, he fell silent. When he was questioned why he refused to join in, the boy blurted out: "It isn't mine."
Creditor uses this example to illustrate the fate that can befall even the most well-intentioned efforts to bring spiritual practices into our schools. The legislation requires a moment of silent meditation, prayer or reflection in every public school classroom in Virginia. The House and Senate approved the bill last week; Gov. Jim Gilmore says he will sign the bill into law.
"I advocate daily prayer," says Creditor. "My Judaism teaches me that people should pray at least three times a day. But we are embarking on a dangerous path when we begin mandating prayer in the classroom. It opens up the possibility of abuse."
Creditor reminds us that the founders of this country separated church and state for a reason to avoid the religious intolerance so pervasive in Europe. He fears that bringing the two back together could compromise religious freedom in our multicultural society. "Prayer should be practiced at home and privately," he insists.
Stephen Colecchi, special assistant and spokesman for the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond agrees. "Prayer is essential for people of faith, but I don't think this legislation is." He is also wary of mixing church and state affairs. "Any legislation would need to be implemented carefully to truly respect a student's religious traditions."
Sen. Warren E. Barry (D) of Fairfax insists that when he came up with the idea for Senate Bill 209, his mind was not full of such prayerful thoughts. "I was concerned about the increasing violence in our schools," says the former Marine, who declares, "I am not a churchgoer," and says he told the religious right to "stay away from me" on this legislation.
Thinking about how to address the violence problem in our schools, "short of arming teachers," he drew upon his experience in the Marine Corps and the long nights of silence he spent in foxholes. "With silence, the mind goes to work," he says. "Our children today are confronted with noise from television, boomboxes and radio from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed. They have no time to think about themselves and who they are. They need to be given an opportunity for reflection."
Sen. Barry acknowledges that the state already has a law on the books authorizing school boards to establish moments of silence for meditation, prayer or any other silent activity, but he found that schools were not taking advantage of the opportunity. "They said they were advised by counsel not to do it because they'd be sued," says Barry. So, why not just take out the word "prayer' from the legislation? "I felt it would be discriminatory against prayer," he says. "And a moment of silence generally refers to reverence." When the governor signs the bill, the attorney general willl be required to defend schools in any cases brought against them on the issue.
Nevertheless, "prayer is fundamentally a voluntary act of the spirit toward God," says Episcopal priest Ben Campbell of Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat center in the city which encourages prayer for the spiritual health of the community. "So, the whole idea of compulsory prayer is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. It's a contradiction in terms." He nods to Rabbi Creditor's misgivings about government meddling in spiritual affairs. "Teachers have something they call a 'teachable moment,'" he says, "in which an opportunity is created between teacher and student which demands an explanation from the teacher. A minute of silence can be such a 'teachable moment.' But the concern is, 'What are you going to teach in that moment?'"
"Nothing." replies Don Runion, pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church. "If it's a time of centering and reflection, we shouldn't try to fill it. I'm amazed at the need to control what children think. I don't think we need to be alarmed at what they think for 60 seconds." He admits that some students would undoubtedly find it much more heavenly to dwell on the blonde sitting across the room or that adorable football player who just shuffled in late than the state of their immortal soul. "But," he adds thoughtfully, " the moment is a gift, just as all opportunities are gifts. You make the choice how you will use each one." Runion himself grew up in a public school which participated in a minute of silence in the classroom, and feels such moments may be helpful to students and teachers, though he too believes that "it's not the business of government to teach religion." Nor does he feel there is an "urgent need" for this legislation. "There are times in the day when you can reflect or center yourself. I don't think people require silence or a state-organized effort to pray."
It may be only one minute out of 1,440 minutes in a 24-hour day, but if you ask Fletcher Lowe, an Episcopal priest and executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which represents 17 Christian denominations, three Jewish federations and one Islamic center, this issue is taking up much more time, reflection and prayer than it's worth. "If the issue that brought about this proposed legislation is concern for violence in schools, why are we spending so much time on this bill rather than working on increasing the number and effectiveness of guidance counselors, and keeping guns out of schools?" he asks. "Let's get serious about school violence. This is a grandstand bill."
Colecchi agrees. "The bigger issue is that our youths need guidance and the involvement of the adult community at home at work, in church, in the synagogue, in the temple and in public schools. But we've become too busy, and they're not getting enough of our time. In my experience, youth have enormous faith and they are looking for models. We need to be there for them."
Sen. Barry does not insist that a minute of silence is enough to effect such change. But "it's a nibble in the right direction," he says. "The House and Senate start each day with a prayer. I don't think it's too much to ask to give our kids a moment of silence in their day."
Richmond Hill's Campbell admits we sometimes get a bit "hysterical" about matters of the spirit. "Spiritual health is affected by many things, not only by what happens in the classroom." If the bill becomes law, he urges students to look to their religious traditions for guidance during those daily moments. And for those without such a foundation?
"This could just be a time of graciousness and ease," he says. "I would suggest they allow themselves to be still ... and see what blessings come in the silence."
SB 209Patron: Sen. Warren E. Barry (D) Fairfax
Revises current law authorizing school boards to establish moments of silence for meditation, prayer or other silent activity, to require daily observation of a period of silent meditation, prayer, or reflection, not to exceed one minute, in every classroom in the public schools in Virginia. No other activity will be allowed during this time. Passed March
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