Trying to Make Amens

If only there were school prayer. If only it were that simple.

The trustees of Fort Bend Independent School District have got their panties in a wad over school prayer, an issue -- like abortion -- of extreme emotion and little compromise. (Could we all just have a moment of silence here, please?) The matter of invoking the Lord before Terry plays the tuba at a football game came up in a February 28 board vote. Trustees split 5-2 in favor of supporting the State Board of Education's decision to back student-initiated prayer via loudspeakers at the big games.

Just like the Republican primary's Texas Religious Freedom Referendum (94 percent say "yes" to school prayer!), this vote was symbolic. No laws were changed. No school policies were initiated. It just let the community know which trustees were ready to stand up for school prayer and which ones weren't. With an election coming up this May.

Sue Hauenstein, a Jew and one of those up for re-election, voted against the measure. After the resolution passed, Hauenstein wept, telling fellow trustees and the administration she couldn't believe how insensitive they were. She was fueled in this by the presence of several Jewish students from Clements High School, who appealed to the board not to take the action it did. As Hauenstein sees it, "This was not a religious issue. This was about tolerance and sensitivity. It's very difficult to vote against prayer. That's not what we did."

Superintendent Don Hooper says all the district did was "promulgate."
Superintendent Don Hooper says all the district did was "promulgate."

Jane Clarke, the other trustee against the resolution, says the issue should never have made it to the agenda. "It is not about student-led prayer," she asserts. The board already decided that in August, when trustees voted 7-0 to support Santa Fe ISD in its attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case on whether student-led prayer can be held before school sporting events. The board vote included Hauenstein, who says she was willing to put the case in the hands of the Supreme Court "and then follow the law."

So why take the vote again? Santa Fe, which did get its day in court (scheduled for Wednesday, March 29), asked other local school districts to support it again. The Fort Bend district was the only one to answer the call.

Fort Bend Superintendent Don Hooper, a devout Christian who has previously spoken in his newsletter about his hopes that prayer returns to the schools, says it was an item that came up for discussion for several weeks informally and then, as is normal, was put on the table for board vote. The only purpose, he says, was to "promulgate" the information that the State Board of Education, Governor George Bush and other high-ranking state officials are in favor of school prayer. And all "promulgate" means, he says, is "to make widely known."

Well, it's widely known right now. It's been in the two local papers, the Fort Bend/Southwest Star and the Fort Bend/ Southwest Sun, for weeks, on the front pages and on the editorial pages, and has been fueling both papers' letters-to-the-editor columns. Each week something new seems to reignite the issue: Trustee Arthur Pace announced he wanted to change his vote to a "nay," the Republican primary marshaled prayer forces anew, and writers on the letters page are no longer talking about just the February 28 session, but everything that has happened since.

So much for the peace and harmony that prayer in the schools would bring.

Most of us of a certain age grew up hearing prayers at school over the public address system. You didn't have to go to a parochial or private school to hear Bible verses. They were accepted in all the schools along with the drone of the Pledge of Allegiance and the announcements. They didn't do anyone any special good that most of us could see, but they didn't hurt anyone, either (unless he or she acted up during the prayer and got hauled off to the principal's office). It was just mainly something you got through before going on with your day in school. And everybody did it because everybody knew everybody was pretty much alike and it was part of being a good citizen and all.

It has been so easy for some people, some good, well-meaning people, to point to those days and say, "See, we had no violence in schools then. We had no disrespect, no moral chaos. We had prayer." Just return prayer to the classroom, get some respect and discipline going again, and this nation can turn itself around. What a lovely thought.

For most of us that long-ago day in school did mean living in a perfectly safe cocoon stripped of violence and terror. We could walk our mile to school, returning home in the dark during the winter months, our parents never worrying. We were independent and secure. Mostly. What this perfect image leaves out, of course, is that there were crimes committed by and against children, and all the prayers in the world weren't talismans against these offenses. There were different schools for white kids and black kids, and if you were black, the books you got were third-hand and the schools were third-rate. Otherwise intruding upon this perfect world were fairly regular bomb drill practices because maybe Cuba or Russia was going to launch a nuclear bomb and somehow we would be saved by ducking under our desks or huddling in the Sheetrocked halls. African-Americans were still seeking civil rights and the vote in many places in this country; there were forced sterilizations of people thought to be "defective," and Hispanics were forbidden to speak Spanish in schools. But other than these things, and a few others, it was all right. And it was so very all right, many people think nowadays, because we had prayer.

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