Can’t We All Just Get Along? Public Prayer in Greece, N.Y.

SONY DSC  The “buried” story here is about Democrats in South Carolina sponsoring a bill which calls for mandatory prayer in the public schools.   Here is one version of this story:

 It triggers reactions about the public prayer case in Greece N.Y. currently under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, Galloway vs. Town of Greece.  This is really an old story, going back at least to the days of William F. Buckley Jr., Madelyn Murray O’Hair, hula hoops, Davy Crockett, and the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case, Engel vs. Vitale, which involved a mandatory public school prayer composed by school officials.  In the 1962 case, the Warren Court’s ruling,  that the practice violated the first amendment prohibition against “establishment of religion,”  ushered-in a fifty year period of legal and political conflict over religion in public life.  

When I heard about the recent, November 2013, argument before the U.S. Supreme Court involving public prayers at Board meetings in the township of Greece, N.Y.,  posing questions eerily similar to the 1962 case, it elicited a sigh, and some feelings of sadness and frustration. 

Here is one version of that story:

One of the benefits of growing old is the perspective you gain on issues that have been around one’s entire life.   That’s not a pure benefit.  When the world (or your family) goes round and round on an issue, neither resolving nor agreeing to let it go (in some constructive manner), sometimes for decades (or centuries, as we see in the Middle East), it’s tiresome, disappointing, and sad. 

For me, the disputes around prayer in public schools or legislative bodies – more broadly, the role of religion in public life – is one of those.  It is one of the most contentious issues in today’s culture wars. 

When I first became aware of it as a civics student in the early 1960s through Engel vs. Vitale, I was genuinely puzzled that the adversaries couldn’t just somehow “work it out” without a soul and energy draining legal battle.

My religious and cultural heritage is Jewish,  I had a lot of religious training in my youth.  I had a Bar Mitzvah in 1961, shortly before Engel vs. Vitale.    I attended public school in a Brooklyn community that was about as diverse as you could get, ethnically, racially, and religiously.  That was before all the groups dispersed to live in their enclaves.

I truly can’t recall whether we had anything resembling prayers in school or not.  We did “pledge allegiance” to the flag and to “one nation under god” every morning.   I also recall,  for sure,  that Christmas was openly acknowledged and celebrated in school, along with Chanukah.  True, no mention was made of Islam, or Buddha, Mormons, or Atheism.  But to me in those years celebrating Christmas and Chanukah in class, was real diversity.

My parents thought this (limited) diversity was fine.  They calmly explained  to me that Jews and Christians differed about Jesus (not around whether he was a good man or not) and the basis of Christmas,  and we moved on.  christmas05My grandmother, on the other hand, warned me about Christmas, and about the great harm that would come to me if I attended my best friend’s communion in the neighborhood Catholic church.  My mother told me grandma was generally wise, but not about everything.   I went to that communion, and recently found my friend Robert on Facebook.

I have always thought the Supreme Court went a little too far in regarding activities like prayers in public schools as a governmental “establishment of religion.”   Recall, there is also the “freedom of expression” clause pertaining to religion in the first amendment.   I could see why the Court majority was upset about the prayers being mandatory, non sectarian, and composed by public officials.   Hmmm.  But I thought there should have been some way to mediate all of that, rather than have it settled in a win-lose fashion.  Or perhaps to meditate,  if not mediate. (Is meditation a religious activity?  That too is in dispute in a few public school districts around the country which offer their students meditation and yoga as a health exercise).

On the other hand, I have never understood why so many religious people are not just satisfied to practice religion privately and on their own time.  Public schools in New York City in the 1950s allowed kids to be released a half an hour early each day so they could attend private “religious instruction” (somewhere off campus) at a place of their parents choosing. Not all kids took part in this.

The public school coordinated with a Catholic Church and a Yeshiva in the neighborhood to make this happen. The kids were picked up by the Church and Yeshiva, so the public schools didn’t pay for transportation.  (Whew!).

Yes, we did lose a small amount of educational instruction by letting a few kids leave early.  My parents thought this was a fair solution.  I have no doubt that today there would be litigation around this. BTW, I was not one of the kids who left early.SONY DSC  I completed the school day…and THEN went immediately for two hours of  more study with a Rabbi across the street from my apartment building.  It was too cold to play stick ball anyway or sit on the fire escape counting the number of Henry J’s passing by.

Though I am relatively lenient legally about public displays of religion,  I don’t buy the argument that taking religion out of public life was a major factor, if a factor at all,  in the “disintegration of  family values” or general social decline in America.   Blaming this on the U.S. Supreme Court and atheists (or non Christians) does not make sense to me.  Parents have always had ample freedom and opportunity to raise kids according to their values and beliefs.  The fact that parents have had less time to do that for the last forty years, because full time parenting is not economically practical (possible) for most people, has a lot more to do with social disintegration than the absence of a morning school prayer or overt celebrations of Christmas (or Chanukah) in classrooms.

Sooo, lets get back to the Greece, N.Y. case, which concerns prayers given at the opening of public Board meetings in that town.   Some people argue that any publicly sponsored prayer violates the first amendment to the U.S. constitution. Others argue that its alright, provided the prayer is rotated among various religious orders.  Still others object even to taking public time for a silent prayer or meditation.  How do you make everyone happy?   

Since the good people of Greece, N.Y. have not been able to sit down and work this out, here is my solution.  I propose a technological fix. What else?  Technology and Drugs seem to solve all of America’s problems these days.  

My solution is roughly as follows:  Attach an electronic pad to the arm rest of every chair in the Greece, N.Y., Board room.  Along with the pad comes a tiny ear bug (sanitized after every usage).  No wires; this is a blue tooth.   The pad, which comes with a little hood to ensure privacy, allows anyone to punch in a prayer choice, with options from numerous religions or non sectarian messages.  It also allows you to choose silence, elevator music, soothing water falls, or a recording of Madelyn Murray O’Hair.  (Perhaps one of her legendary interviews with William F. Buckley, Jr. on Firing Line).

At the beginning of each Board meeting, everyone stands for a minute or two (you can choose to remain seated), slips in the ear bug, and punches one of the buttons on the pad.  No one hears anything but their prayer of choice, or no prayer at all.   

Granted, something is lost when prayer is experienced individually rather than in a group;  but, hey, this is America, where individualism reigns; and technology (or drugs) solves everything.   And yes, you do have to give up a minute or two of public time to make this happen, but consider it an opportunity to gather your thoughts or steel yourself for the nonsense to come (at the ensuing Board meeting). And yes, sitting while others are standing is conspicuous, but get over it.  The Affordable Car Act provides health insurance options for therapy.

This technology could be a little costly to install; but to remain revenue neutral,  Greece N.Y.  could cut back on library services, or something like that.   Or maybe impose a user fee – just punch in your credit card number before you choose the prayer.   Can this system be hacked so “they” will know your religious preference AND your credit card number?  Privacy?  Oh that!




2 thoughts on “Can’t We All Just Get Along? Public Prayer in Greece, N.Y.

  1. Alex MacLachlan

    Irv, great post. You had personal history, US history, reasoned opinions, suggested solutions, and humor. I can’t tell you what a turn off it is when reading local blogs that are so blatantly biased. It’s a non stop second guessing of most of the decision makers, conspiracy theories, snarky comments, and mouth dripping antipathy. You would make a valuable voice of reason around this town. Thanks


    1. Irv Lefberg

      Thanks Alex. I agree with you that most of the blogs or FB pages are so toxic that they dont have any chance of informing or changing minds anyway. I have resisted so far doing Escondido related stuff because am still a newcomer , and am truly not sufficiently informed on a lot of the local issues. Of course many of the national ones, like this one on township public prayers, have Escondido counterparts . If you have the time and want to invite more local people on your FB time line to check out the blog, that would be great. That could lead to more local discussion. Go Seahawks! (Am a big fan of the sea turkeys)



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