Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Republicans Want to Require Indiana Students to Recite The Lord’s Prayer. Seriously.

Last night while I was watching the most boring football game ever played (and rooting for both teams to lose…), I read a tweet from Indiana blogger Doug Masson (and if you don’t regularly read Doug’s posts, you should…). Each year, Doug (who I believe used to work for Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency) writes brief recaps of new bills introduced in the Indiana General Assembly. The tweet in question directed me to Doug’s newest post on another bill that has been introduced … and my jaw nearly hit the floor.

Doug was writing about Senate Bill 251 which would add the following law to the Indiana Code:

Indiana Code Section 20-30-5-4.6.

(a) In order that each student recognize the importance of spiritual development in establishing character and becoming a good citizen, the governing body of a school corporation or the equivalent authority of a charter school may require the recitation of the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of each school day. The prayer may be recited by a teacher, a student, or the class of students.

(b) If the governing body or equivalent authority requires the recitation of the Lord's Prayer under subsection (a), the governing body or equivalent authority shall determine the version of the Lord's Prayer that will be recited in the school corporation or charter school.

(c) A student is exempt from participation in the prayer if: (1) the student chooses not to participate; or (2) the student's parent chooses to have the student not participate.


Before discussing the specifics of SB251, I want to go ahead and direct you to the Senators responsible for this abomination. Call them. Write them. Email them. Tell them that you’re outraged. Express your disbelief that they clearly don’t understand certain basic concepts of our constitutional framework:

Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Northeast Indiana [District 14])

Sen. Jim Tomes (R-Southwest Indiana [District 49])

Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Northeast Indiana [District 16])

So let’s start with a simple question: What is the Lord’s Prayer? I admit that all I really knew was that it was a prayer that was commonly recited by Christians. So I immediately turned to the irrefutable authority on all things religious: Wikipedia.

The Lord's Prayer (also called the Pater Noster or Our Father) is a central prayer in Christianity. In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, it appears in two forms: in the Gospel of Matthew as part of the discourse on ostentation in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the Gospel of Luke, which records Jesus being approached by "one of his disciples" with a request to teach them "to pray as John taught his disciples." The prayer concludes with "deliver us from evil" in Matthew, and with "lead us not into temptation" in Luke.

(Footnotes, links, and emphasis deleted.) The basic form of the Lord’s Prayer is:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Apparently, the appeal to forgive debts is often replaced by an appeal to forgive sins. In all honesty, I was surprised that the Lord’s Prayer didn’t include an explicit reference to Jesus. But given that the prayer was supposedly recited by Jesus as an example, then I guess this makes sense. (I’m told that some Christians append a call to Jesus at the end of this and other prayers, something along the line of “In Jesus’ name we pray” or something similar).

In any event, the issue isn’t really the text of the prayer; rather it is the notion of a prayer mandated by the government (or an entity of the government). Perhaps Sen. Kruse, Sen. Tomes, and Sen. Holdman (who, believe it or not, is an attorney) forgot the words of the First Amendment to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It seems hard to argue that a state statute directing school boards to adopt a specific denominational prayer is a form of impermissible establishment of religion.

And certainly, the Senators appear to have forgotten to text of Article I of the Indiana Constitution:

Section 3. No law shall, in any case whatever, control the free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience.

Section 4. No preference shall be given, by law, to any creed, religious society, or mode of worship; and no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent.

I would certainly argue that a statute mandating a specific denominational prayer would, at minimum, be an impermissible preference to the Christian mode of worship.

Moreover, these Senators also appear to have missed the fact that the United States Supreme Court ruled on the issue of government-mandated school prayer nearly 50 years ago (in fact, this year is the 50th anniversary of one of the two main cases on the issue of school prayer)! Furthermore, it is worth noting that most of the school prayer cases have dealt with (and found unconstitutional) non-denominational prayers. But these Indiana Senators want to impose a core Christian prayer upon Indiana’s school children.

And don’t for a minute think that this isn’t a Christian prayer. When was the last time that you heard a Jew or a Muslim recite the Lord’s Prayer? Apparently Mormon’s don’t recite the Lord’s Prayer (but then, according to a whole bunch of fundamentalist, evangelical Christians, Mormon’s aren’t “real” Christians anyway…). Nor, I suspect, do Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, or the followers of any of the myriad of other religions practiced in Indiana, recite the Lord’s Prayer. And certainly atheists and others who do not profess to any religious belief would not recite the Lord’s Prayer. The point is, this prayer is derived from instructions in the New Testament and instructs Christians on how to pray. It is a Christian prayer for Christian belief.

One might also think that this bill was “necessary” because of the notion that kids can’t pray in school. That is patently false. First, kids can pray when they wake up. They can pray at the breakfast table with their family. They can pray while they brush their teeth. They can pray on the school bus. They can pray in the school hallways or standing at their locker. They can gather in a group by the flagpole and pray to their heart’s content. They can sit at the homeroom desk and pray. And when the teacher hands out the math test that they didn’t study for (because they were too busy praying), they can pray then as well. The can pray silently or out loud (as long as they don’t disturb others). The only thing that they can’t do is ask the school to make them pray or to direct everyone in prayer. And why, with all of those opportunities for individual prayer, is state-sponsored, coercive prayer, really necessary?

Why do Sen. Kruse, Sen. Tomes, and Sen. Holdman care whether my child prays. And why do they care what prayer my child utters? Perhaps I should be asking them why Christian students aren’t being asked to say a prayer that Jesus probably recited every morning and every evening:

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad

Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One

I mean, Jesus was a Jew, wasn’t he?

I also want to note the red-herring contained in the SB251. Yes, the bill permits a student or parent to opt-out of saying the prayer. How realistic of a remedy is this? You try being an impressionable school child, burdened by peer pressure, your own insecurities as your learn who you are and what you believe, and the weight of a teacher or school administrator, and raising your hand to say, “No, I don’t want to say the prayer.” My 12-year-old children, who have heard me talk about issues like this since they first started in public school, had a difficult enough time telling their choir teacher that they were uncomfortable singing the Hallelujah Chorus and Silent Night. And that was just for a single performance; it wasn’t something that was going to start each and every school day.

Query further why it is the job of the schools to teach “spiritual development” (isn’t that what parents and houses of worship are for?) or why that is important to “establishing character and becoming a good citizen”. Do these Senators really suggest that atheists or others who don’t have “spiritual development” don’t have character or aren’t good citizens? Are they really implying that the ills of society are tied to a failure to establish good character that would be cured if we just had (Christian) prayer in schools? Let me quote from my Ben Stein post (go back and read that for a much deeper discussion of certain church-state issues):

The email next furthers the foregoing argument by suggesting that America is in trouble because we no longer read the Bible in schools and it is the Bible that teaches “thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself”. I guess, that we are to understand that, if we still taught the Bible in our public schools, we wouldn't kill or steal and we would love each other. First, just because our children don’t read the Bible in public schools doesn’t mean that we can’t (or don’t) teach our children not to kill or steal or can’t or don’t teach them to love one another. [2011 update: Note that it would also appear that the “love your neighbor” admonition only applies if your neighbor is the right kind of neighbor; certainly, you shouldn’t love your Muslim neighbor or your homosexual neighbor, right?] And even when children did read the Bible in public schools, bad things happened: Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from voting or forced them to sit at the back of the bus (and sometimes left them hanging from a tree), but I would be willing to wager that supporters of those laws prayed quite a bit. Murder and burglary did not suddenly start the day that prayers ceased in the public schools; it seems that those societal ills have been with us (and with all of humanity) from the beginning of time, whether or not people prayed (and irrespective of the type of prayer or the deity to which those prayers is offered). It is simply too easy to say that things are bad and to place blame accordingly without empirical evidence supporting the allegation.

Look, I could go on and on, reciting and discussing all of the reasons why prayer in school is inappropriate. I could spend countless pages talking about the basis for the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment or the premises behind the religious freedom clauses in Indiana’s Bill of Rights. But I think that by 2012 these issues really aren’t that difficult anymore. Sure, there are still some open issues (student-initiated prayer at school-sanctioned events, being one of the current hot-button issues). But whether the state can mandate that children pray and mandate the specific prayer that the children must recite (or listen to) is as unconstitutional now as it was when the Supreme Court ruled on this issue in 1962.

The scary thing isn’t the prospect of this law’s passage (though I suspect a lot of Indiana’s legislators would vote for it); I think the courts will have an easy time tossing this on the rubbish heap of other unconstitutional laws. No, the scary thing is that three Indiana Senators think that this law is a good idea (not to mention constitutional). These three think nothing of having the State of Indiana tell Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, and other children not only that they must pray but that they must offer a specific Christian prayer. What does that say about our society? About tolerance and diversity? To me it says, “Hey, if you’re not a Christian, you’re not a part of ‘real America’, so just fuck off and let our Christian country move backward.” I would just love to see the reaction of these Senators if a school district chose to require children to recite a Jewish prayer or … gasp! … a Muslim prayer. Can you imagine the outcry, horror, and gnashing of teeth? But right now, we need to come to terms with a society that has become so polarized, so afraid of the “other”, so willing to believe in the “War on Christmas” hyped by Bill O’Reilly and Faux News, that legislators are willing to even contemplate, let alone introduce, bills such as SB251.

Welcome to the Theocratic States of America where we make all decisions on the basis of What Would Jesus Do … except, you know, we don’t really pay attention to things that Jesus said. Instead we just force majority religious beliefs on others, discriminate against gays and Muslims in particular (and those with differing beliefs in general), worry incessantly about what’s going on in a woman’s uterus, and grip tightly our God-given guns. And we don’t give a damn about the sick, homeless, and poor. I mean, I’m certainly not a scholar on Christian theology or the teachings of Jesus, but I know that he was far more concerned with guns, gays, and abortion than he was with charity, helping those in need, and, you know, just being a good person. If Jesus had cared about those sorts of things, he probably would have created some kind of golden rule or something, right?

Call Sen. Kruse, Sen. Tomes, and Sen. Holdman (each can be reached at 800/382-9467 or via email). And tell them what you think of their efforts to bring theocracy to Indiana. Oh, and you might also suggest that when they’re done reciting the Lord’s Prayer, they ought to go read Jesus’ thoughts on prayer (from Mathew 6:56):

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men … when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret…

Sorry if I seem a bit snarky or cranky, but bills like this really, really make me angry. And they remind me that the American Experiment in tolerance, diversity, and religious liberty remains a work in progress.

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