Saturday, February 21, 2009

School prayer mime games

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's rhetorical styling is as silly and annoying as that guy in the park wearing whiteface, a turtleneck, and rappelling on an invisible rope. Abbott is miming for an audience, in this case for the court.

Abbott can't admit what lawmakers clearly wanted when they imposed a "moment of silence" on public schools. They wanted prayer.

To say so — to tell the truth — would be to get the requirement tossed out by the courts. So we get this from him:

"The United States Constitution plainly protects young Texans' right to observe a moment of silence before school each morning."

Excuse me? When was that ever an issue?

Of course, that's not the issue in the case of Croft v. Perry. The issue is the state nodding, winking and nudging public employees and captive student audiences into prayer.

Pro-silence? To the contrary. To suit the ends of noisy politicians, silence has been hijacked by a mischievous state.

A Carrollton couple, David and Shannon Croft, sued Texas over its 2003 law. An appeal of a lower court ruling in Texas' favor was heard this week in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court.

Before addressing the illegality of what Texas did, let's address the absurdity of what our attorney general just said, "young Texans' right . . ."

It's a construct — rights assigned to masses — we hear all the time when the issue really is state-imposed religion, or majority-imposed religiosity. Proponents say it's a student's right to pray in class or before kickoff.

No one has ever argued to the contrary. It's the organized, state-sponsored act that has been challenged.

This isn't about rights, Mr. A.G. This is about power — the state saying, "By decree, we will now have a moment of silence — which, mind you, isn't about religion at all." Wink. Wink.

It doesn't matter how many people support state- or majority-imposed religion. The majority has no right. The state has no right. Rights belong to the individual.

On certain key principles, including freedom not to bow one's head to the entreaties of the pious, the Bill of Rights protects the individual from majority impulses.

Some people insist that religion can and must be administered in sugar-cube form to make the world a godlier place. Since the Supreme Court in 1962 prohibited organized school prayer, we've heard appeals to "put God back in school." Advocates of state-imposed religiosity seem to assert that God can't exist unless government says it's so.

Hence, the silent moment movement. Six years ago Texas joined several states with such laws.

Recently a federal court overturned Illinois' law, ruling that its clear intent was to facilitate prayer. That was as self-evident as the law's name: Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.

That "silent reflection" is an option didn't relieve Illinois of the fact that the law's intent is to inject prayer into the classroom.

Intent matters. That was the essence of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Alabama's silent moment law in 1985.

That's why Texas is miming for the court, winking all the while, that this law is to protect students' "right to silence."

Right. And the objective of traffic lights is the "right of motorists to see red, green and yellow."

The amazing and telling thing during the statehouse discussion of Texas' silent-moment law in 2003 was that not once did we hear any of the Republicans in charge — they who often rail against encroaching, busy-body government, take to the microphone and say:

"What? Do we really need the state to play contemplation traffic cop? If we can think of no weightier matters, let us adjourn. I have fields to plow."

John Young is opinion editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

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