“Teach Us How To Pray” – In Cranston

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For readers outside of the region, first, a little background. Cranston High School West, a fine public high school located in Cranston RI, has found itself in a bit of a pickle recently, a “prayer pickle” you might say. You see, there’s this prayer banner hanging in the school auditorium that says:

Our Heavenly Father, grant us each day the desire to do our best,

to grow mentally and morally as well as physically,

to be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,

to be honest with ourselves as well as with others.

Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.

Teach us the value of true friendship.

Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit

to Cranston High School West. Amen.

That prayer, which has been hanging in the school for almost fifty years, has accompanied a couple generations of students as they’ve navigated their way through the everyday trials and tribulations of high school life. And it’s never offended anyone. At least not till recently, that is.

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In July of last year the ACLU sent a letter to the school superintendent asking officials to remove the banner because, the group claims, it violates the First Amendment and the separation of church and state. This followed the complaint of a single individual, a self-identified atheist, who was offended by the banner and its religious overtones. The battle was on.

Recently a large crowd of people attended a meeting of the school committee to debate the issue. A clear majority of people supported keeping the banner; some said they would sue if the banner was removed. Others threatened to sue if the banner stays. For the moment school leaders have voted to keep the banner. True to its word, the ACLU is suing. What a mess.

Now, it seems to me that if there has ever been an issue that cries out for some restraint and common sense, rather than litigation, it’s this one.

On one hand . . . I see absolutely no harm in having the banner remain in the school. As already mentioned, a couple generations of students, and perhaps some staff, teachers and visitors too, have been inspired by the banner. The banner certainly doesn’t promote the establishment of any particular church or faith.

And who can argue with the sentiments of the prayer – the encouragement for students to do their best, to be kind and helpful and honest, to be good sports, to value friendships and to act in a way that credits their Alma Mater? Doesn’t sound especially subversive to me.

Why would that inspiration offend anyone? Because it begins with a rather generic reference to “our heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen”? The sensitive souls offended by that presumably eschew the use of our national currency that carries a far more religious sentiment – “In God We Trust.” And I suppose that they hold their ears during the singing of “God Bless America.” As far as I know no one is required to recite the prayer on the banner, memorize it or pledge allegiance to it.

The desire to scrub every reference to God and religious faith from public life, including our schools, is tiresome and irritating. And in fact it creates another pseudo-religion, secularism, that other people are forced to endure. The ACLU should avoid these silly little squabbles and move on to other more important issues where civil liberties are really threatened. By the way, does anyone know – does the ACLU ever support “conservative” causes, or just those that are part of the “liberal” agenda?

But I digress. In short, the prayer banner is a historic part of the school culture; it expresses positive sentiments and inspires students; it does far more good than harm. And although I don’t have a vote, I vote that it stays.

On the other hand . . . it seems to me that the rise and fall of religious faith, Christian or otherwise, in our nation or even in Cranston, doesn’t depend on the fate of the banner. If it has to be removed, so be it. Faith will survive and the free practice of religion will go on. And in fact, the banner battle can be an occasion for all of us to treasure the opportunities for personal prayer we already have, every day.

I wonder if, at least for some of the folks involved in the Cranston debate, the need to win the battle of the banner has become more important than the actual desire to pray. That’s a danger. Those who are fighting to have the prayer remain in the school – students, parents and others – I presume that they take some personal time throughout the day to pray. Do they pray as a family in the privacy of their homes throughout the day and on special occasions? Do they attend their churches and other places of worship every weekend to join with the faith community? Surely no one’s preventing that free exercise of religion. If they’re fighting over the banner and not really practicing faith on other occasions, their passion for the banner is suspect.

I hope that the banner battle doesn’t travel too far down the litigation trail. No one really wants that, and in fact we certainly have bigger fish to fry in our communities these days. But if indeed the banner is removed someday, I hope that the good folks in Cranston will keep on praying. After all, the Word of God is written on your hearts, not on a banner; and it’s the Holy Spirit who helps you to pray. That’s something no one can take away from you, even as you walk the halls of a public school.