In New York a man was arrested for buying crack cocaine. It turned out he was a school principal, and he was promptly fired.
In Tennessee another school principal made sexually suggestive comments to co-workers. He, too, was fired.
In Jackson, Mississippi, yet another school principal, named Bishop Knox, was recently sacked. What was it for this time? Drugs again? Sexual harassment?
No, this time it was for allowing students to read a prayer over the school intercom.
The prayer lasted a full six seconds and went like this: “Almighty God, we ask that You bless our parents, teachers, and country throughout the day.” When word leaked out that Knox had actually permitted students to recite such offensive words, he was immediately dismissed. The ACLU issued hysterical statements condemning the principal.
But the vast majority of the community rallied to his support. Hundreds of students boycotted classes to protest his dismissal. Parents tied yellow ribbons outside the school. Thousands of citizens turned out at a rally at the state capitol with the governor.
Both sides of the controversy claimed the Constitution on their side. The school, bolstered by the ACLU, insisted that prayer in school is verboten. But Knox pointed to a 1992 appeals court ruling that permits prayers at graduation ceremonies as long as they are student-initiated and student-led.
In this case, the offending prayer did come from the students. The entire student body had voted to have a prayer read each morning over the loudspeaker.
No doubt the courts will now step in to split hairs and decide when and where and how students may pray. But the episode makes one thing clear: School prayer has taken on symbolic dimensions. It now stands for a broader cultural conflict over the role of religion in American life.
When the Supreme Court banned school prayer in 1962, it helped create a general attitude toward religion, an attitude that religion has no role in the public arena. When God is banished from the classroom along with guns and drugs, students absorb the idea that there must be something wrong with religion.
It is this hostile attitude, more than prayer per se, that troubles religious people.
Ironically, the ACLU seems more concerned about religion in school than about drugs and violence. The Jackson school where the prayer controversy took place recently had to deal with a student shooting a gun on campus. Police were asked to begin patrolling the hallways.
Yet as long as the students were threatened “only” with drugs and violence, the ACLU ignored them. But when they were threatened by a six-second prayer, the ACLU rose in horror to “protect” them.
The good news is that Bishop Knox has been reinstated as principal at his school. But the incident proves what Christians have sensed for years: that secular liberals are not merely neutral toward religion, they are covertly hostile. Many hope to banish religion to the strictly private realm?where they hope it will languish and die out.
So the battle over school prayer is not just about prayer. It’s about whether bringing religion into public life should be condemned as a crime.