Even voluntary school prayer can be a tool of coercion

My first exposure to the words of the 23rd and 24th psalms was neither at home nor in synagogue. It was in P.S. 175 Queens, where weekly assemblies were marked by white blouses, Old Testament readings, moments of silent prayer and innocuous songs that were carefully selected so as to not offend the mostly Jewish student body. "I Believe," "One God" and "Bless this House" were perennials.

In a suburban Miami elementary school, my cousin learned a decidedly different tune: "Jesus Loves Me." I remember the whole family giggling when she sang it; but as far as I know, neither her parents nor her grandparents had the chutzpah to complain. In the '50s — a time of quotas, gentlemen's agreements and McCarthyite witch-hunts — Jews outside metropolitan enclaves kept a low profile. They didn't stick their necks out.

In the '60s, we stuck our necks out. I remember my moment of truth. I was a freshman at Oberlin. At my first Sunday dinner in Dascomb Hall, we Jews stared at one another across mounds of Jell-O, and squirmed while our classmates sang the praises of "Father, Son and Holy Ghost." Talk about exclusion — and indigestion. To this day, I can't stomach Jell-O.

Three years later, when President Kennedy was shot, the college provost told the assembled students that the president's death was shocking, "particularly to us Christians."

I fired off a letter to the editor, telling how it felt to be excluded.

The offending "Doxology" eventually disappeared from Oberlin, along with the school of theology. But Jews, members of religious minorities and others in American public schools continue to be victimized by insidious religious activity.

In Shreveport, La., students lead Christian prayers before athletic competitions, according to Rabbi Michael Matuson, whose synagogue won a suit against the religious-right-dominated local school board.

Such activity continues. "60 Minutes" featured a Mississippi woman's battle against a school district that broadcast Christian prayers over the public address system.

Correspondent Leslie Stahl spoke to ministers and parents in the school district, asking if they knew that such activity was illegal. She also noted that the same district had once championed segregation.

"Segregation is wrong," said one woman. But school prayer, she said, is not. And in a majority Christian culture, the majority prevails.

And when religion becomes an instrument of power, there are abuses.

In the Contra Costa County high school my own children attended, a young adult missionary from the Campus Life organization was a regular in the school cafeteria, converting students over deep-dish pizza and sloppy joes. One of the organization's stealth techniques was to get popular kids to invite classmates to ostensible social events where the Christian agenda crept in. Neither a conversation with the school principal nor a meeting with the ACLU resulted in school policy changes.

In the 10 years since then, the situation has deteriorated, thanks to Supreme Court rulings allowing religious groups to meet in public schools. Peer pressure — once focused on the labels on jeans and sneakers — now includes the label on beliefs.

The biggest threat, however, is not prayer pressure among students. The moneyed Christian right is spearheading an agenda of religious conformity, trying to squelch intellectual inquiry.

Obviously, this is not a climate in which children can flourish. Schools are not safe if students feel excluded, or, worse, if they are tantalized with heaven and told they're going to hell if they don't follow the party line. Jews, religious liberals and others must continue to fight these messages — and these stealth tactics.

At the same time, a school should not be a religion-free zone. Just as students need to experience Bach's concerti and Shakespeare's plays, they need to study the writings of various religious traditions in a spirit of inquiry, not worship. Unfortunately, American schools do a notoriously bad job in this area. The difference between Jews and Christians, according to a text used in my children's junior high, was that Jews don't believe Jesus is the Messiah and are still waiting. Nothing was said about mitzvot, tzedakah or atonement. "Tradition" was nothing more than a song from "Fiddler on the Roof."

There's no question that schools need to do a better job of conveying religious and cultural history. But it would be inappropriate for public institutions to get in the business of worship. The one-size-fits-all religion that permeated school assemblies 40 years ago no longer fits. Few educators have the knowledge to come up with inspirational messages for an audience of Jews, atheists, Christians, Buddhists, New Agers, Hindus, Muslims and Deep Ecologists. And if they have the knowledge, they should use it to transform their teaching programs.

Unfortunately, the very forces that are screaming the loudest about the need for religion in the schools are likely to have the strongest objections to teaching religion as an academic discipline. Their goal is not to produce better-educated students with a greater understanding of religious thought. Instead, they're trying to infiltrate school boards and curriculum committees, attempting to stamp out material aimed at teaching students to think independently.

Taking on the religious right is no easy task. The playing field is not level. Jews and religious liberals are outnumbered, outfunded. And we're not armed with tickets to heaven.

Nonetheless, we do have intellectual ammunition. We must speak out when evangelism moves into the public arena. We cannot allow peer pressure and stealth tactics to create a climate of fear in our schools.