Many people are upset about the recent news that a 4-foot by 8-foot “School Prayer Banner” hanging in a Rhode Island public high school since 1963 must come down. On January 12, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled that the banner hanging in Cranston High School West is unconstitutional. The judge wrote, "No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer."
Local resident are up in arms over the ruling and are urging the school district to appeal the ruling. In the meantime, Jessica Ahlquist, the 16-year-old atheist who initiated the action to have the banner removed, is reportedly receiving all kinds of threats and vitriol. She told one reporter, "A lot of people are saying that they hope I get beat up. . . .That they would hurt me physically in school if they could. It is hurtful. It kind of disturbed me. It's mostly hurtful when it comes from students in the school."
It is ironic that this backlash directed at Jessica comes from students whose school motto is “A place where we treat people like we would like people to treat us.” And if that weren’t enough, the prayer on the banner that the students and community are trying to protect asks God to help them be kind, helpful, good sports even when they lose, and to conduct themselves so as to bring credit to their school. It reads:
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.
I recommend that the students of Cranston High School West meditate on the words of the very prayer they are so determined to preserve. It’s time for the students to take the prayer down from the gymnasium wall where it has been collecting dust, and actually recite it daily.
How can they do that, you may ask?
Well, Rhode Island has a law requiring a daily moment of silent meditation. It reads as follows:
“16-12-3.1 Period of silent meditation. -- At the opening of every school day in all grades in all public schools the teacher in charge of the room in which each class is held shall announce that a period of silence not to exceed one minute in duration shall be observed for meditation, and during this period silence shall be maintained and no activities engaged in.”
I recommend that the school’s Christian club print the “School Prayer” on a small card and distribute it to every student on campus. The club can then encourage students to silently read the card every day during the mandatory period of silent meditation.
If the school doesn’t have a Christian club, I recommend they start one immediately. Under the Equal Access Act, if the school has any non-curricular clubs, it cannot deny a Christian club from starting -- even if the club’s sole purpose is to distribute the “prayer cards.” Imagine the good that could result if even half of the 1,750 students at Cranston High started their day reading the prayer card.
This is a wonderful opportunity for the good students of Cranston High to do what the makers of the banner intended 50 years ago -- actually pray the prayer. Symbolism has its place. But given the choice between symbolism and substance, I’ll take substance every time.
(Eric Buehrer is the president of Gateways to Better Education and an occasional blogger at the BreakPoint Blog.)