Trying to Make Amens
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."
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.
When schools went to a moment of silence a few years later, it just somehow didn't measure up, certainly not for conservative districts like Santa Fe. For years some districts have argued that the U.S. Constitution does not specifically call for church/state separation. (It's an opinion not shared by the courts and the ACLU, who point to the First Amendment phrase "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.") Superintendent Hooper says the separation doctrine first came up in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to one of his constituents who was worried that the Anglican Church of England was about to be named the official church of the United States. It was 1948, Hooper says, before the modern-era court first ruled on the separation of church and state.
Santa Fe Independent School District decided to get prayer back, and it and its lawyers came up with a new strategy to do so. Taking it right to the heart of any liberal's interpretation of the law, they argued that to forbid student-led prayer impinges upon a student's First Amendment rights. Students have rights, rights that should not be taken away from them just because they step upon school ground, says Hooper.
Um, since when? Students don't have rights. Step on campus, and they lose the right to speak whenever they want. They lose the right of free association. They can't just study what they want. They have to meet dress codes and hair-length codes. Exercising their right of free speech to a disliked teacher, for instance, will usually earn them a bunch of trouble. There's no court to hear their case. Punishment is swift and certain and usually determined by the same person they've offended. No administrator hesitates to remove items deemed unsuitable from a student newspaper prior to publication.
Now all these restrictions may be necessary for the good order of things, but to claim that student rights are sacred flies in the face of the experience of every schoolchild and every adult who has ever been through school.
Equally questionable is the premise that somehow because these prayers are (bring on the angel chorus here) student-led they are surrounded with an aura of goodness. This call to prayer supposedly cannot be denied because it's coming from the hearts and souls of the pure spirits of children.
Have we lost our minds? Sometimes children and the things they do are very, very good, and sometimes they are very, very bad. Sort of like adults. Cloaking school prayer in child -- and teenage -- sainthood is offensive. Shades of the Children's Crusades.
Arthur Pace was the trustee who voted in favor of the February 28 resolution and then attempted unsuccessfully to rescind it. On February 1 he underwent five hours of neurosurgery, followed by 12 days in intensive care. He walked into the vote cold, taking his cue from another respected board member. By the next morning he called the superintendent and was told the only way to rescind his vote was to bring up the matter for vote again. This still wouldn't change the way the board as a whole voted, so instead he opted to make a statement at the next meeting.
Pace doesn't think the board vote led to division on religion in Fort Bend. "The community is already divided as far as religion is concerned," he says. By not having prayer in the schools, though, these differences are not highlighted, he says. "Why not have a moment of silence? Nobody requires you to listen to a prayer. If you have organized prayer, whose will it be? When they say we want prayer in the schools, they want my prayer, my own prayer.
"I am a devout Christian. I am becoming increasingly devout. We allow students to pray silently or in groups. Now you can't pray and interrupt classes. But as far as I'm concerned, prayer is in the schools."
"People who are opportunistic are using prayer for their own aggrandizement," Pace says. "What people want is organized prayer. They want someone to get up with a microphone.
"We have ethnic differences in our schools now. Students are fighting to work past those. With prayer now you've got another difference. You're Catholic. You're Baptist. You're Mormon. You're Hindu. It's just another distraction."
Fort Bend ISD is a district with a lot of diversity. In fact, that is one of its selling points: It's a suburban school district with generally good test scores that is not all white. "We claim to celebrate diversity. We brag about it," Hauenstein says. This makes Fort Bend very different from the more homogeneous Santa Fe district, she says.
According to Hauenstein, of the 53,000 students in FBISD, at least 10,000 are not Christian. Elected to represent the west division of the district, she says, she has to represent all her constituency, and she has to think about those 10,000 kids as much as the majority.
She believes that minority was told it did not matter by the board vote.
Superintendent Hooper disagrees. "On our school calendars we represent all cultural and religious groups. We are very diverse, and these things mean a whole lot to us, their way of life and religion."
As for reaction to the school prayer resolution, Hooper says, "Primarily, we've only heard this from a Jewish religion standpoint." He also says he has no way of knowing what religion the children in his district profess.
Unlike Santa Fe, Fort Bend has no policy on prayer before football games, Hooper says. It has no policy and is caught between warring federal policies that on one hand say to separate church and state and on the other say not to interfere with free speech.
"I believe the best government is one that recognizes a higher authority," Hooper says. "The majority of people would acknowledge there is a spiritual part to all of us. Why is it that we don't acknowledge that?"
Hooper denies there was any political maneuvering, any attempt to build up one trustee's candidacy (Trustee Bruce Bain is up for re-election and voted for the resolution) while casting aspersions on another's (Hauenstein's). As a matter of policy, he says, he does not get involved in board races. "I do not work for or against anyone. I typically support the incumbents."
As for what it might mean if the U.S. Supreme Court okays school prayer before football games and ultimately reinstitutes prayer in the classroom, Hooper has steeled himself. He knows that if student-led prayers are opened up in the schools, he may hear some non-Christian prayers over the public address system. "I may someday have to listen to a Wiccan prayer."
Unlike decades ago, we in the United States have no further claim to obliviousness. We know everyone is not alike. We aren't all Christians. We don't even all come from a Judeo-Christian heritage. We are many different religions. We are nonreligious. We all have something to say.
There are few more essentially private decisions to make than to be religious. How we choose to profess that is up to each of us, whether in or out of mosque, church, synagogue or temple.
Prayer offers comfort and healing and does great things. It should be used at every needed opportunity. But Jesus himself warned against those who make a great show of praying in public.
Proponents of prayer in schools seek to have it two ways. The words in a prayer are so powerful that they will get out the guns, end violence and repair brokenness. But if someone objects to those words, doesn't agree with them, well, they're not meant to hurt anyone. Just be quiet, step out of the circle. Don't join in. We mean no harm. We do no harm.
Yes, you do.
E-mail Margaret Downing at email@example.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.