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No atheists in foxholes -- or at memorial services for children?

December 17, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • President Obama pauses as he delivers a speech at an interfaith vigil in Newtown, Conn., on Sunday.
President Obama pauses as he delivers a speech at an interfaith vigil in… (Evan Vucci / Associated…)

Three things struck me about Sunday night’s interfaith vigil for the victims of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.:

1) The program was amazingly ecumenical, with Hebrew chants, invocations of Jesus and contributions from Muslim and Baha'i speakers, along with syncretistic references of the “whether we call him God or the Great Spirit” variety.  Is this the face of the new civil religion in America? It would seem so. Especially in affluent communities, limiting the clergy onstage to a Christian minister and a rabbi is (as the lawyers say) under-inclusive of the range of religious affiliations in the audience.

2) Ecumenical and irenic as it was, the Newtown memorial was still a religious ceremony, and the featured speaker, President Obama, was careful to quote from (Christian) Scripture. I suppose one could devise a memorial service for the pupils killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School that didn't include prayer or any reference to what one speaker called the “divine realm." But it would strike most Americans as arid and inadequate -- especially when those being mourned are children. Notwithstanding the advent of the “New Atheism" and the decline in church affiliation, the connection between communal mourning and religion remains strong in this country. Partly this is because many of the families of the victims of any tragedy are likely to be religious; but even many atheists and agnostics would probably be put off by a rigidly non-theistic memorial.

FULL COVERAGE: Shooting at Connecticut school

3) The memorial was held at a public high school, but without church-state controversy. In 1999, after the shootings at Columbine High School, the U.S. Senate approved a nonbinding amendment saying that Congress found no constitutional bar to “the saying of a prayer, the reading of a Scripture or the performance of religious music as part of a memorial service that is held on the campus of a public school in order to honor the memory of any person slain” at a school. At the time, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticized the amendment, saying: “The students who did the shooting felt isolated from their peers. Erecting memorials and holding services which contain religious matter only adds to the divisiveness.... Such things should be turned over to the churches and synagogues.”

There is an item about Newtown on the Americans United website Monday: a column by Simon Brown rejecting the notion that the massacre was the result of court decisions banning official prayer in public schools. But (so far) the group isn't objecting to the religiously themed memorial service at the Newtown High School.

One reason for refraining from criticism is that the Newtown event took place on a weekend and wasn't part of a mandatory school activity. But beyond that nuance of constitutional law, now is not the time to worry about prayers being offered in a school building, and Newtown is not the place.

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