We prayed a lot when I was in school. Prayers in the morning, prayers at lunch. And, of course, prayers when our parish priest, Father Francis Welch, came to visit.
He was a big Irish guy who knew everyone by name and had the wisdom to keep me from going to seminary until I got to know a girl or two.
It didn't take me long to lose my vocation.
This was all at St. James Grade School, at Randolph and View in St. Paul, where Father Welch would come to our classroom wearing his black cassock and his black hat, a biretta. He walked up and down the aisles, tousling our hair, asking catechism questions and making sure we put "JMJ" at the top of all our papers -- "Jesus, Mary and Joseph" -- invoking the holy family. Eventually, he'd wave goodbye and start to leave, but that was a game: He would go halfway out the door. Then he'd pause, as if he had forgotten something. That was our cue:
"Father Welch, will you give us your blessing?" someone would ask.
A smile would flash across his face and we hit the boards, 35 sets of bony knees hitting the floor as he made the sign of the cross over our heads and blessed us.
It always felt good.
So I don't worry too much about prayer in schools. I don't think it did me any harm.
Then again, I was in a Catholic school.
There are legitimate objections to children in public schools being made to pray, and the issue has flared up in charter schools -- publicly funded, independently operated schools, many sponsored by groups affiliated with churches or religions. In a few cases, those connections seem closer than is healthy, or legal.
I have argued that charter schools are not getting enough supervision and that we should have a moratorium on new ones until there is better control over the ones we have.
Including the Muslim ones. And the Christian ones, too.
The Minnesota Department of Education has had a highly publicized tussle with Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA, for short), a mosque-sponsored charter school that holds voluntary prayer attended by most, but not all of the kids (not all of them are Muslims).
Some folks complain that the Muslim prayers (which the school says are led by students) violate the law. I don't know if that is so (the school referred me to a public relations firm when I called; you are in deep spin territory when schools go to the flacks). But the fight over TIZA begs a larger question:
Is the state, which has 150 charter schools while public school systems suffer from funding shortages and brain drains, exercising adequate oversight over all the religious groups that sponsor charter schools or lease them space?
If the answer is no, it may be because some people prefer the lines to be blurred (except when Muslims do it).
One prominent point person in the argument has been Chas Anderson, a deputy commissioner who came to the department in 2003 with a thick political portfolio. (She has a political science degree and worked as a Republican staffer in the Legislature.) When she isn't overseeing a $13 billion budget or criticizing TIZA, she appears to have led seminars at "The Minnesota Academy for Conservative Leadership." The goals of the academy include "advancing the conservative movement in Minnesota, through electoral politics."
I don't object to Anderson's commitment to that goal, but it is anathema to her job as deputy education czar. People should worry as much about political agendas pursued by policymakers as about prayer in schools.
Anderson did not return calls. Neither did Randy Wanke, the department's spokesman, who formerly worked for a conservative think tank, the Center of the American Experiment.
But there's a clue to their thinking in the 2008 Republican Party platform, adopted at the GOP convention in St. Paul. On page 45, it calls for voluntary prayer in schools and the right of religious groups to use school buildings:
Republicans "assert the right of students to engage in voluntary prayer in schools," it says, "and to have equal access to school facilities for religious purposes."
(The platform also calls for "replacing family planning programs for teens with increased funding for abstinence education," arguing that abstinence is the best way to prevent teen pregnancies. I was going to send that section to the Alaska Department of Education, but alas, I fear it is too late.)
Here are three bottom lines:
1) Tax-supported schools should not make kids pray; and 2) education officials should keep politics out of school policies, because 3) what's good for the goose is good for the gander: If one religion is allowed, all must be.
At St. James, we didn't worry about crossing any lines. There were no lines. It was called a parochial education.
Public schools are different.
They should stay different.