BACK IN MY OLD neighborhood, the Brooklyn Bridge was the ultimate object lesson. We lived nowhere near the bridge and it was years before I laid eyes on it -- graceful and storied -- but it was the ultimate rebuttal to any child who said he did something because the other kids did: If they all jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge would you? The recommended answer, of course, was no.
But the truth was something else again. The truth was yes -- yes, I, we, all of us or at least most of us, did what the other kids did. This is what kids do, what parents call "not having a mind of your own," but what kids call something else -- "being one of the guys."
So universal is this thinking among kids, and even some adults, that it comes as something of a surprise to find that the lesson is lost when school prayer is involved. With school prayer, we suddenly expect kids to become adults, not mere day-in-day-out adults, but adults with real back-bone, with real convictions, with the ability to withstand social pressures, disapproval and even some taunting. We expect them to go their own way.
This, after all, is what is supposed to happen if and when prayer once again is heard in the schools of the land. The vehicle for this at the moment is a Senate-passed bill that more or less opens the door to school prayer by instructing the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, to stay out of the matter entirely.
At the moment, the bill is languishing in the House Judiciary Committee. A discharge petition is being circulated to get the bill out of committee and onto the floor, where it would face the old up or down, yes or no. The trouble with these votes, though, is that they are never couched as having to do with the First Amendment or individual rights, but rather as referendums on God -- are you for or against? It is a rare congressman who likes to be anti-God, but they think, somehow, that kids like it better.
There are a lot of things wrong with the bill. It would mean that on the issue of school prayer, and this issue alone, a constitutional question could not be heard by the one court that was established to hear constitutional issues -- the Surpeme Court. The result would be that various state courts would set their own standards. On a single constitutional issue, we would have maybe 50 different standards of how and under what circumstances prayer could be conducted in the schools.
But the real problem with the bill is that word "voluntary." The notion is that a child can either pray or not pray. When the time comes for the prayer, that child, in his maturity and wisdom, is supposed to tell the teacher that even though the school wants him to pray (why else would everyone be doing it?) and the teacher wants him to pray (why else would she be doing it?) and all his classmates are praying, he will not. That kind of volunteerism makes for a 99 percent voter turn-out in Russia.
What's worse is that the child may not understand why h e has been asked by his parents not to pray. In some cases, the reason may be apparent -- a slant of some sort to the prayer. To Catholics it may seem too Protestant, or to Protestants too Catholic, or to Jews too Christian, and the child may really feel uncomfortable saying the prayer. As for atheists, their objections would be apparent.
Sometimes these differences are not apparent to a child and have meaning only for the parent. This is true not only when it comes to the nuances of religion, but also to secular convictions. Some parents may simply be against the notion of prayer in the schools.
Whatever, the reason, the child is put in the impossible position of bucking his classmates to satisfy his or her parents. He or she is forced to choose between the authority of the school and the authority of the parents. You can force a child to buck the trend once, but every day for an entire year may be too much to ask.
The upshot is that there is nothing voluntary about school prayer. It is compulsory. It compels certain people to pray who otherwise might not. This is not true voluntarism and anyone who thinks otherwise knows nothing about kids, the way they think, or, for that matter, the Brooklyn Bridge.