In the late 1940s, my high school football coach in Birmingham, Ala., discovered that a scheduled game date fell on a Jewish holiday. This would have normally been no big deal, but four of our players, three of them starters, were Jewish and their folks didn’t want them to play. The game was rescheduled to everyone’s satisfaction, and everything turned out all right. But in reflection, the recent controversy at Ridgeland High set me to thinking.
One of our assistant coaches back then was a devout Christian who would on occasion share his faith with a player, usually a boy who was having some problems. But what if he had tried to lead the team in the Lord’s Prayer, words from the New Testament? How would the Jewish players have felt? And what would have been the other players’ reaction if they had refused to join in the prayer? This would have been well within the Jewish players’ rights. Solutions to these sticky dilemmas aren’t always as clear-cut as we might like them to be.
In 1962, the U. S. Supreme Court invalidated a New York law that prescribed a spiritual, non-denominational prayer to be recited in public school classrooms. Similar statutes were soon struck down in other states based on the New York decision. The plaintiffs in the New York suit argued that even though dissenting students might not be required to pray, they might be singled out for ridicule and discrimination by the other students for not doing so, a clear case of tyranny of the majority.
Anyone in this country may pray anytime, anywhere. There is no law or court decision prohibiting prayer itself. It simply can’t be an organized corporate prayer prescribed or approved by a government agency or conducted on government premises. Why should that be so hard to understand?
My religious convictions tend toward an evangelical, though not fundamentalist, outlook and I believe in the validity of conversion experiences. I have known these to have taken place at Sunday morning worship services, at revivals, on street corners and even in bar rooms, but I have never known of one taking place in a public school classroom or at a football game.
Although our religious makeup here in the South is relatively homogeneous, a thing called “Southern civil religion,” the rest of America tends to be more diverse. And this includes people of no religion. They have rights, too.
James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” in reply to those who wanted to establish Christianity as our official religion, wrote: “While we assert for ourselves the freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence that has convinced us.”
And returning to my original thoughts, doesn’t Jesus Himself tell us in Matthew 6:5-6 not to make a big deal of praying in public “as the hypocrites do,” but to pray in private?
George B. Reed, Jr. is retired from AT&T and a former history teacher in the Hamilton County school system. He lives in Fort Oglethorpe and can be reached at email@example.com or 706-858-3501.