Visit Southwick Elementary School on Wayne Trace and you’ll quickly notice it is different from other northeast Indiana schools.
More than a third of Southwick’s students – 36 percent – are Asian. They are the children of Burmese refugees who came to the city through Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program. They straddle two worlds – the language and culture of their Indiana school and the language and culture of their families and the Burmese community. A small percentage might be Catholic, Protestant or Muslim; most are Buddhist.
It’s worth noting because Southwick is part of East Allen County Schools, where the school board members gather in a circle before their meetings to pray for guidance. The prayer, often led by board member Stephen L. Terry, minister of New Life Church of God, is not part of the official meeting; it’s never been challenged.
Last week’s Supreme Court ruling could change that. By a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that a town board’s sectarian prayers are constitutional. Some will inevitably interpret the decision as a green light for all public boards to offer prayers invoking Jesus’ name and the Christian faith.
The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
But exclusion and coercion are the keys when young people are involved.
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that a town hall meeting need not be a religion-free zone but it must not favor a specific religion.
I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality – the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian, Kagan wrote.
The Burmese community in Fort Wayne works hard to assimilate in a culture very different from Myanmar or the refugee camps in Thailand. The religious faith they observe is inevitably a source of comfort and guidance in a world they struggle to understand.
Here, they should find an environment where that faith is respected; where no other faith is held up as the ideal. Public schools and other public institutions should not be used as tools to evangelize, but as models for respecting a family’s right to worship in the faith they choose. No one – least of all the refugees who enrich and energize our communities – should feel intimidated or unworthy by the actions of a religious majority. No young people should be emboldened to harm or harass another young person because his or her religion is different.
University of Notre Dame law professor Richard W. Garnett, an expert in church and state relations, told the Washington Post that Monday’s Supreme Court ruling was correct; that it would be wrong to rule legislative prayer unconstitutional. But that doesn’t mean policies supporting sectarian prayer are wise or welcoming, he added.
As the East Allen board and other public boards across the land weigh the ruling, they must seek to be wise and welcoming. The message they would send with overtly Christian prayer is akin to the governmental actions many refugees sought to escape. It is counter to the ideals of a nation that values religious liberty.