It was in the fifth grade that I confronted the crucifix. It hung ominously in Mrs. McCarthy’s classroom, looming on the wall opposite the door. I was the messenger for the day, stationed just outside the principal’s office, where I was given the occasional note to deliver to a classroom. The first time I entered Mrs. McCarthy’s, I recoiled and nearly did not go in. The crucifix, macabre or so it seemed to me, announced that this particular classroom was not for me. I was in a public school, but this was a parochial classroom.
I am old enough to chuckle about that experience and my feelings – this was PS 39, after all – but I recognize, too, how the invocation of religion can be seen as a hostile act. The Supreme Court yesterday ruled, more or less, that that is not the case – the prayers conducted under government auspices are no more than ceremonial traditions, innocent, benign, a bit of atavistic Americana.
The five justices in the majority are wrong. The prayers separate. They announce to nonbelievers that this place – this city council meeting, this courtroom, this place where you have come beseeching the government for something – is not yours. It belongs to them. It is their prayer they are reciting. So it is their courtroom or city council chamber and you, the supplicant, are an outsider – not one of them.
I heard one of the plaintiffs in the case interviewed on National Public Radio and she recounted how an ancestor had fled from the joyously anti-Semitic Cossacks — oh, how they loved to kill Jews! – and how another had suffered under the Nazis, and I thought, “Oh, give me a break! This is America.” There are no Cossacks here, and the Nazis have been vanquished, the very last of them, creaky 90-year-olds, being hunted down by the German government for the incomprehensible crimes of so long ago. She sounded silly to me, alarmist – a bit too melodramatic.
And yet her feelings have to be respected. The prayers that opened the city council meetings of Greece, N.Y., were not her own. They separated her from the very people she had come to see. She was not a fellow citizen, but a different kind of fellow citizen – a bit lower on the ladder, she had to feel; a bit lower on the ladder, they had to concur.
I laugh at what the court has done. It has granted religion its unimportance. It says it’s no big deal. Relax! No one’s trying to convert you. No one’s insisting you bow your head or watching to see if you move your lips at the proper time. This is America,and religion is merely a talking point for the small-time Torquemadas of Fox News.
But the vestigial fifth-grader in me knows better. I can remember what it feels like to know you have trespassed. It’s not that you are not welcome. It’s just that you are not as welcome as others.