American public-school students who insist on praying aloud before football games may not have noticed that global religious leaders are gathering this week in New York.
Yet the two groups have something in common: They both highlight renewed concerns about the role of personal faith, prayer, and spiritual thinking in public life
The four-day Millennium World Peace Summit at the United Nations brings together more than 2,000 religious leaders from all major faiths. One purpose of this unique event is to show how religion, used wrongly, can ignite political conflict - but used wisely can calm many world trouble spots.
The summit is an attempt by some of humanity's most respected leaders to sort out how to bring faith into public life. That issue was addressed squarely by America's Constitution-writers, who wanted to separate church and state. For decades the Supreme Court has tried, in case after case, to define exactly what that means in daily living. It's not an easy task.
In June, the high court said a Texas high school erred in helping students organize public prayers before an official football game, even in letting them use a taxpayer-funded sound system. The ruling has touched off a grass-roots movement, mainly in the South, to skirt the ruling by having students just pray aloud and together in the stands.
The motive of these students is a heart-felt desire to protect the players and generally bring about an uplifting game, while drawing others into that purpose. Such intentions deserve respect and should not be easily curbed.
But at the same time, the students must respect the court's reasoning that public officials cannot actively allow one religious group to impose its beliefs on others in government settings such as a public-school activities. Jewish students should not be forced to listen to the Lord's Prayer in a government stadium.
Imposing religious beliefs and habits on others has been a source of innumerable wars. Yet God-centered thinking, conducted quietly through individuals, has transformed the world, and can continue to do so.
Prayer should enlighten those engaging in it, not frighten those who aren't.
The UN peace summit will try to find a consensus on the ways faith can be used to heal the world. One way is to know when government officials should not let one religion prevail.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society