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A moment of silence for clear thinking

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


The holy wars are being fought in Citrus County over the issue of whether exclusively Christian prayer should be offered at School Board meetings.

This week a School Board member began to pray to her "heavenly father" and ask things "in his son's precious name."

People bowed their heads.

A Wiccan man, simultaneously, began a prayer to the "earth mother," whom he also addressed as "goddess."

Someone in the audience said, "Get security."

And that pretty well sums it up.

The resulting confusion, along with the odd crusade, inquisition, intifadah and witch-burning are what happen when you mix religion with government.

Meetings of school boards are the proper place for conducting school business (which, alas, also this week included discussions of whether things that happened at an on-campus meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes crossed the line on in-school religious activity).

Whether board meetings also are the proper place for conducting public prayers, especially prayers exclusive to one religion, is another question.

It's actually a non-question, which makes it all the more baseless, but, perhaps masochistically, the board is seeking more comments before making a decision on how to handle the issue.

My (silent) prayers will be with them.

There is no law against prayer in public schools. There are court decisions that prohibit certain types of institutionalized prayer, but you can pray all day in school if you want to, as long as you don't bother people around you and interfere with the primary mission of the school, which is secular -- not religious -- education.

I'm not the first one to point out that anyone who believes there is no prayer in school never took algebra.

You also can pray all you want to at school board meetings.

I met a Hindu holy man in Canada a couple of years ago who, for most of his life, has spent every waking hour chanting a Sutra, a Hindu scripture, quietly to himself. He could do that at a school board meeting, in the back of the room, and nobody would notice.

But if he, or anyone else takes the taxpayers' microphone and speaks to a captive audience there to conduct the business of government, you have problems.

Some religions don't approve of each other. Some people think anyone who doesn't share their beliefs is going to hell, and some people don't believe in hell.

My point is that the place for all of those discussions and exhortations is in a church, temple, stupa or circle (for my Wiccan friends, whom some also refer to as witches), not at a government meeting.

The chaos that resulted at this week's Citrus County School Board meeting is the best evidence. If a Santerian priest shows up next week and wants to sacrifice a chicken, it will get only weirder.

The idea of rotating the opening prayer among the board members "so nobody gets offended" is problematic in that it means only that no member of the board will get offended. It says nothing about the audience members, some of whom are professionally required to be present and all of whom have a right to be there for the stated purpose of the meeting.

Part of the problem is that more than one religion calls for active work toward conversion of non-believers; and some folks honestly feel under divine ordination to do that at any time possible and see being prohibited from offering only their brand of prayer as an affront to the deity they believe in.

I think they could give it up for the time it takes to start a board meeting.

There is absolutely no reason not to do what School Board member Carol Snyder, who first raised the issue, suggests: a moment of silence at the beginning of the meeting.

During that moment, everyone in the room can reflect, meditate or pray to or about whatever deity he or she believes in without offending anyone else, and then the meeting can get on with its real business and nobody has to call security.

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