Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Separation of Church and State--Two Vignettes

by Richard Crews
When we lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1969, our eight-year-old daughter attended public school. My wife and I dutifully went in to the parent-teacher's meeting when we were summoned, and found--to our relief and delight--that our daughter's second-grade teacher (whose name, through the merciful ravages of time, escapes me) was a huge black woman who just LOVED children--a veritable "Southern Mammy"--the kind of woman whom any child (or adult) feels safe just being around. Things proceeded without incident until one afternoon, a few weeks later, when our daughter mentioned in passing that her class started each school day by folding their hands, lowering their heads, and jointly reciting the Lord's Prayer.

Since my wife and I considered ourselves card-carrying (overly intellectual, East Coast) Liberals, we agonized about this breach of the Constitutional separation of church and state for many an evening, and finally decided to do something--to speak to the teacher and principal. Successfully--well, sort of. A couple of weeks later we learned that now each school day started with, "Everybody put your hands together and bow your heads--here we go--BESS, DON'T SAY IT!" Having succeeded in making our eight-year-old daughter totally stigmatized as a schoolyard pariah, we quickly backed off our principles and apologized to the principal and teacher, acknowledging that we had made a mistake.

Forty years later in the heart of enlightened and internationally integrated Silicon Valley, when I take the dogs for our morning walk, as we cross a field by a middle-school I sometimes hear the PA system blare out with the voice of some privileged student leading the school in the Pledge of Allegiance. It begins, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America" and concludes, "with liberty and justice for all. Amen."

You have to admit that the Pledge seems sort of like a prayer--especially with that "under God" in there--especially to a kid. It sort of seems like it ought to end with "Amen," the Constitution notwithstanding.