Religion Today

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

It's OK to Pray in Your School

The school year is arriving. This seems like a good moment to revisit that continually confused and confusing issue, prayer in schools. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of what kind of prayer is permitted in the public schools of the United States. So let me take this column to review what is and what is not allowed with regard to
prayer in public schools.
What kind of prayer is allowed in a public school?
Everyone and anyone who goes to a school may pray there. "Everyone," that means students, teachers, staff and administrators, may offer a private prayer to the divine at anytime they choose. "Anyone," that means any person of any religious faith, be they Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon, or Native American, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, or Wiccan. Thus praying in the schools is permitted to everyone there, as long as it is private and personal, and does not interrupt legitimate school activities.
It is also OK for students of like beliefs to join together to pray, whether informally ("let's meet at the west door before the bell") or more formally in a religious club of voluntary membership. This club may meet on school property, such as in a classroom, at times when clubs are usually allowed to meet. The only exception to this is if the school has banned clubs altogether. The rule of thumb is that religious clubs must be treated the same as other clubs.
Similarly, it is permitted for teachers, staff, and even administrators to join together voluntarily to pray. Again, this may occur in formal or informal settings.
What kind of prayer is not allowed in a public school?
It is not OK to pray in a school in way that would knowingly or unknowingly coerce anyone of a different belief to join in. Thus teachers, principals and others in a position of authority should not use that position to persuade, require, expect, or intimidate students or others under their supervision to take part in prayer that they otherwise would not. Schools are inherently hierarchical and those who are higher in the hierarchy should do nothing that would seem to exercise that position to make those below them pray.
Similarly, prayer should not be part of public school functions. Although this rule can be a bit vague, the main principle is clear. A general prayer offered in a manner designed to be inclusive of all present, whatever religion they adhere to and articulating generally positive sentiments agreeable to them, is usually acceptable. Prayers that adhere to a single doctrinal line or reflecting a non-inclusive theology do not belong at school functions, even if said by a student. In general, prayer should not be conducted in such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a particular religion.
Finally, participation in prayer should not be used as a basis to reward or promote those who take part or to withhold such rewards from people who do not.
These rules, both positive and negative, are designed to ensure every individual's freedom to believe and worship as they choose, and to prevent the power of the state (as exercised by the school and its employees) from interfering with that right. Those who do not follow such rules may be exercising what they see as their religious freedom, but they will be doing it at the expense of the religious freedom of others.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Mel Gibson and Anti-Semitism

Mel Gibson and Anti-Semitism
Paul V.M. Flesher

During his recent drunk-driving arrest, Mel Gibson not only acted abusively and persistently threatened the arresting officer but also made several anti-semitic remarks. It is odd that there was no reason for anti-semitism during the encounter. Most of Gibson’s recorded comments constitute threats of retaliation against the officer or exclamations about how the arrest will hurt his career, both of which fit the circumstance. But Gibson’s anti-semitic comments come out of nowhere. Although the arresting officer happened to be Jewish, Gibson did not know this until after he began his anti-Jewish tirade.

From the arrest report, it is clear that the officer has often arrested belligerent drunks, and most of Gibson’s ravings go unheeded. But when Gibson begins to curse the Jews, the officer gets scared and takes steps to protect himself from potential violence. This incident provides a good example of anti-semitism’s power to generate fear in the people it targets. Indeed, this power has produced not only fear but injury and death to Jews for centuries. To understand why anti-semitic threats would frighten an armed policeman arresting an unarmed man, let us review anti-semitism’s history.

Anti-semitism originated within Christianity. Its roots stem from the period when early Christians were debating whether or not Christianity belonged to Judaism. In the beginning, Jesus and his followers saw themselves as Jews and as fulfilling Jewish prophecies. After Jesus’ death, the church was headquartered in Jerusalem, where Judaism’s central temple was located, and where many Christians continued to worship. When the Apostle Paul successfully argued that new Christians should not be circumcised or follow other Jewish practices, such as dietary rules, Judaism rejected Christianity. Christianity saw this rejection as a betrayal and many angry words were said and written on both sides. Some of these words were preserved in the New Testament, and hence carried on into later Christianity.

By the early medieval period in Europe, Christianity had developed the notion that all Jews throughout history were responsible for killing the messiah, even though Jesus’ crucifixion had happened as a single, one-time event where no more than a couple hundred Jews could have been present. This was forgivable if the Jews converted to Christianity. But Jews as a whole did not convert. Since Christian theology had no place for unconverted Jews, Jews living in Europe became objects of hatred and largely without the legal rights accorded to Christians; they had no place in Christian society. Over the centuries, Jews were ejected from England and Spain, were persecuted and killed en masse during the Crusades, and often forced to live in ghettoes. Given their lack of legal protections, Jews were often accused of crimes by those in power, such as kings and dukes, bishops and priests, resulting in attacks and pogroms against entire Jewish communities. (Anti-semitism in the Muslim world differs significantly and will be addressed in a future column.)

As the Enlightenment dethroned Christianity in Europe during the nineteenth century, anti-semitism changed. The charge of killing Jesus no longer resonated in a secular society and gave way to the accusation of a world-wide conspiracy theory that Jews controlled governments, major events, trade, and so on. Since these ideas were not based on evidence, some government organizations manufactured evidence with which to frame Jews, most notoriously, members of the Russian secret service and the French army.

Mel Gibson’s comment to the policeman, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” expresses this type of anti-semitism. The silliness of this remark exemplifies the entire concept’s thoughtlessness. There are only twelve million or so Jews in the world as against two billion Christians, over a billion Muslims, nearly a billion Hindus, to say nothing of Buddhists, Sikhs, secularists, and many other groups. The notion that such a small group runs everything that all these other groups do is simply preposterous.

What is really going on in such a belief is an attempt by those on top of society, whether ruling classes or individuals who derive power from wealth or celebrity, to present themselves as victims, as persecuted by a secret cabal. This in turn justifies their actions as defensive measures, at least to themselves. Mel Gibson, a man of wealth, accomplishment, and fame, threatened a policeman carrying out his legal duty, saying that the officer’s actions would bring Gibson’s retribution upon him. That Gibson has apologized several times since his arrest indicates his sober awareness of the immoral character of his actions and statements at that time. But the fear which this threats evoked in the officer has a long past.