Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Peanuts and Prayer

I don’t much read Peanuts anymore. All the strips that are in the paper now are ones that I likely read either when they first came out or in collections as a kid. Actually, I don’t much read the comics anymore. But every Sunday, when I gut the paper for coupons for Sofie to cut out, I have to pass by the comics section, and there, right on the front page, is Peanuts. And I always check to see if it’s a strip that I remember.

This past Sunday’s was a reprint from November 3rd, 1963. It’s not one I remembered reading before, but when I saw it, I immediately called Cheryl into the room.

“You have to read this,” I said. “And then I’ll explain it to you.”

If the link I put in to the strip isn’t working, let me summarize it for you. Sally Brown comes up behind her brother, who’s watching TV, and nonchalantly says, “Guess what?” After Charlie Brown takes the bait and asks “What?” she carefully looks around the house, and takes him to a spot where she’s sure that no one will hear her, and says, “We prayed in school today.”

Then I explained to Cheryl that she was to young to remember, since she didn’t start school until 1967, but I remembered school prayer, and it wasn’t as simple and innocuous as everyone thinks it was. At least not at Ashland School, in East Orange, NJ. It wasn’t a simple case of saying a little prayer at the beginning of the day; I remember the day in Mrs Celmar’s 1st grade classroom starting with the Pledge of Allegiance, a reading from the Psalms, and the Lord’s Prayer. And this was a scene that was repeated in all four sections of every grade from K-8.

That is, until the famous Supreme Court decision of June 1963 that “banned prayer from public schools.”

Someone once said that as long as there are algebra tests, there will be prayer in school.

The decision in Abington School District v Schempp did not ban prayer from public schools. What it banned were the religious exercises like the one I described at Ashland School. It banned them as mandatory, official activities of the school.

Those of you who know me, know that I’m a religious person, and you know something? Based on what I remember, and from what I’ve found out from researching this, the Supreme Court made the right decision. A simple non-denominational prayer, a simple moment of silence, would’ve been one thing; but requiring all students to take part in a religious exercise that may not even be a part of their religion is another.

And here’s the kicker. Whenever this issue comes up, everyone always thinks of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the famous atheist. But the original plaintiff in this suit, before his case was combined with hers, was Edward Schempp, a Unitarian-Universalist, who claimed that the daily religious exercises in the schools his children attended, violated their family’s religious beliefs. Schempp felt that it wasn’t enough for his children to be allowed to leave the room during the religious exercises, because being the ones who left, being the different ones, might make them targets for bullying.

In fact, O’Hair said that her son’s refusal to take part in the classroom religious exercises resulted in bullying being directed at him by his classmates. Bullying which school officials seemed to condone.

Being bullied for being different is something that we’ve gained increased sensitivity to over the past few years.

So go on, pray when you realize that there’s a test next period that you haven’t studied for. Pray that the cute little red-haired girl over there will go to the Homecoming Dance with you. Pray that when the principal calls you down to his office, it’s for a good reason and not a bad one. You can even pray for the victims of the most recent tragedy or disaster (and there seem to be far too many of those). It’s all OK. You can do this in public school. What the Supreme Court banned almost 50 years ago was the kind of coercive, mandatory prayer that I remember. And it’s a good thing.

I just pray that everyone else understands this.


  1. Keith fortunately I don't remember all hoopla you
    do around prayer in schools. Nassau where I went probably had something similar. What I do remember is that all the "mandatory" prayer did not make the school a nicer place to be. The bullies still made life miserable for those they targeted. The teacher that were mean spirited remained mean spirited. The prayer did not bring me closer to God, nor did it make me more patriotic. I think mandatory prayer in schools subverted prayer. I think it lessened the belief in God that it was supposed to upheld. Prayer like faith in the creator thrives only when it is voluntary.

    John Parsons
    formerly of EastOrange New Jersey

  2. Sheila S. (now a liberal Catholic)January 24, 2011 at 11:54 AM

    This reminds me of an experience I had in 2nd grade, in public school. It was 1965, so prayer was banned by then. Still, in December my 2nd grade teacher required our class to memorize a fairly long Bible passage about the birth of Jesus, and recite it at the beginning of each day. I guess she figured it wasn't "prayer"...
    Anyway, I was really struggling with memorizing it, as my family wasn't religious, so it was totally unfamiliar to me. The teacher was giving me a hard time about it, and it was causing me a lot of stress, but it never occurred to me to mention it to my parents. Midway through the month, a boy in my class raised his hand, and said "My parents told me that I'm half Jewish, and I don't have to do this." The teacher excused him from it. Seizing the opportunity, I announced "Well, I'm ALL Jewish, and I don't like all this Jesus jazz!"
    When the teacher called my parents to apologize, they were quite surprised, since we're actually not Jewish, but they did point out to her that this was not appropriate in public school, so she stopped this practice.

  3. This was a pretty interesting post. I was born in the last 1970's and thus missed the whole prayer in schools thing. I didn't even know it existed.

    That said, I totally agree, especially now that America is diversifying more and more: a simple non-denominational prayer would be perfectly suitable, so no one is excluded or bullied, but the kind of overtly, high-handed prayer back then is not appropriate. Speaking as a Buddhist, I'd be fine with prayer, as long as its inclusive and not intimidating.

  4. Also, the comic's path has changed to: so you may want to update the link. :)