School’s prayer divisive impact on P.S. 81 students



When it ruled last month that a football coach at a public high school could gather his team at the 50-yard line to recite a prayer, the U.S. Supreme Court reignited debate over the practice of religion in public schools.

The Riverdale Press addressed the issue in 1991, when Newt Gingrich — the then-incoming Speaker of the House — called for a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in public schools. A proposal briefly endorsed by President Bill Clinton.

In respsonse, The Press published an editorial, “God and government,” from which the balance of this Point of View is adapted.

Friday was Assembly Day at P.S. 81. The students stood in straight lines, two abreast, in size place. The boys were dressed in white shirts, dark wool trousers, and ties. The girls wore shirtwaist dresses, short socks and pumps.

They filed slowly into the auditorium. Sternly — she was always stern — Mrs. Simpson, the principal, led the Pledge of Allegiance. Then a specially favored student walked to the big lectern to the left of the stage, opened the enormous school Bible, and began to recite.

A member of P.S. 81’s Class of 1955, recalling how it felt to practice at school an official religion quite different from the creed of his parents, found renewed debate over school prayer flooding him with memories of weekly humiliation.

What in his day was Riverdale’s only public elementary school opened every assembly with a prayer or a passage from the Bible, he recalled. And every prayer and reading — those from the Old Testament and those from the New — made it clear to all that P.S. 81 was a Christian school.

The King James Bible, like the majority of the student body, was Protestant. The atmosphere was church-like. Hands were to be clasped, heads bowed. Often, the recital of the Lord’s Prayer or the Bible reading was followed by a hymn.

Before the winter break each year, the student body mounted a Christmas pageant. Weeks were spent practicing the singing of carols.

“My teachers would have been amazed at the mental picture I had of a ‘round young Virgin,’” recalled the student with a smile. But his parents were not amused when he came home talking of the Wise Men, the manger, and the Christ child. They did the best they could to explain why they were troubled in terms a 6- or 7-year-old could comprehend.

But the child caught the sense of menace they sought to conceal as they decided “not to make a fuss” by complaining to the school. It was an early lesson that being different could have unpleasant consequences.

Later, as the Jewish community grew, his parents and others were emboldened to complain. The school’s solution was to confine the Bible reading to the Psalms and to add a Hanukkah play to its staging of the Christmas story.

“My ears still burn when I think about that play,” the student said. “They singled out the Jewish students to perform in it. I think my classmates got a subtle message that we were different and that there was something distasteful in the difference.

“If it was bad for me, it was worse for the children whose heritage was Jewish, but whose families were irreligious. There were three or four who kept having an identity foisted on them.”

As we enter a new national debate on restoring prayer to the schools, it would be well to remember the pain of these Riverdale families, for it will be felt anew by the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Hindus, the atheists and the non-observant — by any child whose family’s rituals are at odds with those of the larger community.


The author, a 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial writing, was editor of The Riverdale Press between 1978 and 2008