By DONALD DeMARCO
Rabbi Leslie Gutterman of Temple Beth El, in Providence, R.I., no doubt felt that he was not in violation of the U.S. Constitution when he offered a two-minute invocation and benediction to the graduates of Nathan Bishop middle school.
For many years it had been the policy of the Providence School Committee and the superintendent of schools to permit principals to invite members of the clergy to give invocations and benedictions at middle-school graduations.
Furthermore, Rabbi Gutterman had studied the “Guidelines for Civic Occasions,” prepared by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. According to those guidelines, public prayers at a nonsectarian civic ceremony should be composed with “inclusiveness and sensitivity” in mind.
If some of the rabbi’s remarks seemed bland, it was no doubt that he was operating under severe limitations. Conscientious as he may have been, he crossed the line when told the graduates: “We must each strive to fulfill what You require of us all: To do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly.” A 14-year-old student objected and the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that Rabbi Gutterman had violated the religion clauses of the 14th Amendment (Lee v. Weisman, 1992).
Siding with the majority, Justice Harry Blackmun noted that although the phrase “to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly” could be understood in purely secular terms, it was taken “straight from the King James version of Micah, chapter 6, verse 8.” Although the phrase is sufficiently generic for most believers, he found that “it still embodies a straightforward theistic premise.”
The rabbi had overstepped his bounds. He tried to be inclusive but made the mistake of including God. He tried to be sensitive, but he was off base even citing a generic passage from the Old Testament.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, concluded that “the prayer exercises in this case are especially improper because the State has in every practical sense compelled attendance and participation in an explicit religious exercise.” He also inveighed against the “potential for divisiveness,” the fact that one particular member of the clergy was chosen over another, and the employment of “psychological coercion.”
This ultra-sensitivity concerning a potential cause of divisiveness is actually creating more divisiveness than it is excluding. Was it too much to ask of middle-school graduates who may have been of an atheist persuasion to tolerate the rabbi’s two-minute address? No doubt there was much that students had to tolerate with respect to particular ideas, books, teachers, and colleagues during the course of their educational formation.
The purpose of prayer at a civic function is to unify people, and this it achieves far more often than not. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln could very well have used the “divisive” words chosen by the discredited rabbi. In fact, Lincoln sought out inspirational passages from the Bible, such as “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matt. 12:25) in order to appeal to a broad range of the populace.
In dissent, Antonin Scalia noted the unifying potential of prayer: “To deprive our society of that important unifying mechanism, in order to spare the nonbeliever what seems to me the minimal inconvenience of standing or even sitting in respectful nonparticipation, is as senseless in policy as it is unsupported in law.”
He also noted that the phrase, “under God,” is included in the Pledge of Allegiance. Would students “have been psychologically coerced, moments before, to stand for (and thereby, in the Court’s view, take part in or appear to take part in) the Pledge”? “Must the Pledge therefore be barred from the public schools?”
Today, America is more divided than at any time in her history since the Civil War. In one sense, people are divided to begin with. They are individuals. But today’s emphasis on hyper-individualism (rather than neighborliness) deepens this division. Prayer unifies. Excessive concern for protecting people against the possibility of being offending, or excluded, causes the rift between people to widen.
A reasonable tolerance is needed in order to avoid an unreasonable divisiveness. In overprotecting one’s individuality, the unity of community, state, and nation are undermined. The U.S. Supreme Court, especially since 1973, has done more to divide the nation than to unify it. The potential for divisiveness is ripe when the phrase “God Bless America” can be deemed unconstitutional.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)