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July 3, 2022

I Say a Little Prayer for You—But not in School.

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In yet another stunning SCOTUS decision, prayer in school is declared to be a protected right and that high school football coach, Joseph Kennedy, was exercising that right by calling together members of his team and even inviting members of opposing teams to pray on the 50-yard line.

Don’t get me wrong, prayer has always been a part of my life. I was raised Jewish, and the signature prayer, known as the Shema, was chanted by rote.

“Shema Yisrael, Adonai, Elohenu, Adonai Echad,” and the translation, “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Much later in life, when attending synagogue services at Beth Or in South Florida, the rabbi, Rami Shapiro, introduced me to words that resonated more fully with my searching soul, “That which we call God is Oneness itself.” It was such a vital ritual in my childhood that even when our parents went out for the evening, babysitters would listen to the recitation offered by my sister and me.

Throughout my life, I have also prayed in various Christian denomination churches, a Buddhist temple, a Krishna temple, a mosque, and in pagan ceremonies held in tree groves under a star-sparkled sky. Each time, I have communed with the Divine in my heart. In 1999, this nice Jewish girl became an ordained interfaith minister. The New Seminary that I attended was founded by a rabbi, imam, swami, and minister. It sounds like the opening line of a joke in which these esteemed clergy people walk into a bar.

When I was in second grade, around the winter holidays, my teacher asked us to make holiday decorations. The kids who celebrated Christmas made trees painted green, and the kids who celebrated Hanukkah (there were three of us) made blue stars.

Each year, the decoration hung in the front window of my childhood home. When Mom and Dad moved to Florida, it traveled South with them, and they hung it in their bedroom window all year round. Sadly, their condo was broken into through that window, and in the process, the star was damaged. A little glue and voila! Almost good as new. It became part of my inheritance when they died many years ago. When I hold it, I feel connected to them.

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The thing is if the teacher had asked the Christian kids to make crosses, it would have felt like it crossed the line. I looked at the Christmas tree as a cultural image, which I discovered later was a pagan symbol. I wonder if my classmates felt threatened about the Star of David that we made. Likely not, since they were the prevailing majority in my community.

When I was in high school, there was a Bible club, and I recall students carrying copies of The New Testament as a tribute to their faith. I felt odd seeing it since I attended a public school. I had one friend who was a devout Christian, and she encouraged me to read it. I did, out of curiosity, and because I wanted to please her. I didn’t tell my parents that I had perused the pages, for fear that they would think I had converted.

I didn’t convert, by the way. That was a question my mother had asked me in 1998 when I told her I was enrolling in the seminary. I told her that I had not, nor would I, but also that my spiritual exploration would be ongoing and expansive. She accepted that, and she and my dad came up from Florida for my ordination. She started calling me her “Reverend Daughter,” and I became the family clergy person who officiated at weddings and funerals, including those of my parents.

I see prayer as portable and personal, and I know I don’t have the right to tell anyone what to believe spiritually. I say that love is my religion and God is too vast to fit into a box. I see the Divine as an energy, not an entity, kind of like The Force in “Star Wars.” I don’t have a need to parade it for public acceptance. I don’t need for my beliefs to hold dominion over anyone else’s, insisting that “My God’s better than your God.”

My perception is that any religion claiming superiority and rules by fear and control is exercising spiritual abuse. My take is that any religion that tells people they will be cast out of God’s love in any way is practicing spiritual abuse. Any religion that tells people that their gender, religion, skin color, culture, sexuality, or any other identity makes them inferior or is condemned is practicing spiritual abuse. Any religion that says an intermediary is necessary to have—what I call “Godversations”—is practicing spiritual abuse. Any religion that claims to hate in the name of One who was said to have come in the name of love is practicing spiritual abuse. Any religion that wages war under its auspices is practicing spiritual abuse. The Gospel according to Edie? Could be. I don’t want followers. I just know that it lines up with my values system and how I live my life.

While Coach Kennedy feels he has the right to pray with his team, he is acting as an employee of a public school. If he was a Sunday school teacher, employed by a house of worship, it would be his role. If he worked for a parochial school, it would be his role. If students attended said schools, they could expect to pray. I wonder the content of the prayers he uttered while kneeling, head bowed. Were they generic or said in Jesus’ name? If his non-Christian players suggested their own faith traditions prayers to mix it up a bit, would they be criticized? If they chose to abstain from the group activity, would they be shunned?

Since SCOTUS’ Conservative majority decided that teachers had the right to exercise religious expression, would devout Muslims be able to pull out prayer rugs and face Mecca as they place their forehead on the ground in devotion? Would a Buddhist teacher be permitted to call for an invocation for Metta/Compassion? Would a Jewish teacher be able to don a tallis and recite the Shema? Would a pagan be permitted to pray to the spirits of nature? Would a Hindu recite a prayer from the Upanishads? Would a Native American teacher or student offer a prayer of gratitude for the blessings of the ancestors? How would those actions be received by the school district and parents? Anyone who thinks that those who didn’t join in the team exercise wouldn’t be bullied or harassed has a short memory. Can you say “peer pressure”?

The lines between “church and state” have long been blurred since our money has written across it the words “In God we trust,” and when the Pledge of Allegiance is recited in school, the name of God is invoked. When people are sworn in as they give testimony in court, the words “So help me, God” is incorporated. When the President and Supreme Court Justices are sworn in, they traditionally place their hand on a bible. Public schools have holiday concerts and pageants. Even though this is so, we are not now and have never been a Christian nation. The Founding Fathers seemed not to have intended that.

Frighteningly, we are now a Theocracy. I have heard the term Christofascism to describe the “Evangelical, semi-theocratical movement or temperament of Americans who stand against abortion, sexual education, homosexuality, science, and the separation of church and state.”

Does this sound hauntingly familiar? How do we, who believe in “the God of our understanding” in whatever form this shows up, maintain the right to worship (or not) without being compelled to follow the edicts of those who seek to overpower and yield religion as a weapon?

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