May 31, 2005

Graduations, Invocations, Observations

by PG

Blogging has been low for the last few days due to much travel. On Thursday I drove to Austin* to get information for a pro bono project, and had to come back Friday in time for my cousin's high school graduation that evening. He graduated from the same school as my little sister and I, but the ceremony was held at the Expo Center (or as my older sister calls it, "the cowbarn"), where the rodeo and livestock exhibitions happen, because the stadium's grass was being replaced with Astroturf. My uncle fulminated, "Why couldn't they wait until after graduation? This just proves that sports are more important to them than academics." Not sure if he was saying this for rhetorical effect or if he really has managed to live in Texas for over a decade without realizing that fact.

Coming home always provides the opportunity to observe what has changed since my secondary school days, and what hasn't. Changed: many more kids with Spanish last names. Unchanged: no church-state separation. The National Honor Society induction still is held at a Baptist church with several invocations of God's place in our lives, and a student still leads a prayer at graduation. Both are constitutional at this point: NHS is a private organization and free to have its inductions wherever and however it wants, and while the Supreme Court has bumped athletic prayer (a ruling that my schools ignored), the Fifth Circuit OKed nonsectarian, nonproselytizing invocations, and that's the precedent that counts until SCOTUS chooses to settle the circuit split.

My little sister's summa cum laude graduation began Friday night with the famous Brown Dance, but we had to miss that as well as her Phi Beta Kappa** ceremony Saturday morning while we were in transit. Arriving just in time to snap dozens of pictures of her before the baccalaureate service, we watched the big screens on College Green that showed the graduates' assembling in the First Baptist Church in America, which the minister noted really is the first, founded by Roger Williams in 1638. The hours that followed were filled with Chinese dragon dance; Muslim calls to prayer delivered by two young women; a brief Zen Buddhist discourse; Japanese lute; an operatically sung Latin hymn; Jewish, Hindu and Christian prayers and blessings; and a religiously-themed address by Phylicia Rashad, aka Mrs. Cosby.

(My undergraduate institution doesn't give honorary degrees, which means that we miss some opportunities to rub shoulders with celebrities. Brown gave honorary degrees to Rashad, Dave Eggers, an Afghan humanitarian, Christo and Jean-Claude, though the biggest applause went to the elderly alumnus who had given millions to support undergraduate scholarships.)

Charles Haynes suggests that such baccalaureate services may be the best option for those who wish to include religion in public schools' graduations too:

What about public acknowledgement of God during the time of graduation? The best way for that to happen is at a baccalaureate service for those who wish to attend. As long as it is sponsored by community groups -- and not by the school -- the baccalaureate can include real prayers and sermons. It can even be held at the school if community groups are allowed to use school facilities after hours.
It strikes me that authentic prayer at a baccalaureate service does more to acknowledge God than watered-down, edited prayers at a graduation ceremony.
Perhaps some would see the interfaith baccalaureate service as inappropriate, but it struck me as the perfect way to acknowledge the variety of traditions that have taken root at Brown since its initial founding as a Baptist university, and one worthy of imitation by my high school.

The student speakers at Sunday's commencement also invoked religion. One did so in a similarly multicultural fashion: "Star-dust scattering in the eyes of our loved ones so they cry and cry out -- 'Praise Jesus,' Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, Ogun, Jah, the Most High, or whatever spirit moves them." The other mentioned that his ignorance of others' religions had been remedied, while his own belief had been honed:

I knew the Old Testament by heart, but nothing about Judaism. In church I sang soulful southern Black Gospel side-by-side with my Mama and sister, but the concept of Mass was completely foreign to me. [...] We talked ... about attending a Chinese New Year celebration, lighting candles at Hanukkah and the Jewish Torah study that I attended. [...] I learned that if I was going to be a good Christian, I needed to model my life directly after Jesus Christ, not after everyone claiming to be a Christian.
The second speaker's comments about political conflict presented an interesting view of how contemporary legal battles appear to educated laymen: "I saw how hypocritical it was for conservatives to seek federal intervention on the issue of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, but plead for states' rights on the issue of the Ten Commandments Monument in the Supreme Court Building in Alabama."
[This comment was followed by applause and cheers from his fellow students.]
"Likewise, I saw the hypocrisy in liberals crying for states' rights on the issue of same-sex marriage but demanding federal intervention to remove the monument in Alabama."

Technically, one could attempt to clear liberals of the hypocrisy charge in this example by noting nuances such as marriage's being a state concern while violations of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment are properly a federal question. However, this would be valid only insofar as the liberal who cried for state rights in one situation but not another actually stuck to such traditional designations, and in any case does little to address the appearance of inconsistency.

This is the advantage that Federalists appear to have; rather than having to come up with a new justification for each policy preference, they claim to hold to a particular interpretation (originalism, textualism, whatever it is that the Chicago folks do) even if the heavens may fall. Of course, the heavens rarely do seem to fall for Federalists, as they tend to pick an interpretation that generally leads to the results they'd like. For example, libertarians reinvigorate the Ninth Amendment's text in order to maximize all freedoms, and conservatives read the Ninth with original intent so that economic liberties remain while social liberties do not. Owen Courreges declares that the Amendment merely states a rule of interpretation and urges, "Itís time for everyone to admit that the 9th Amendment isn't oneís own personal bill of rights."

I haven't figured out the type of Federalist one can be to get liberal results all around, but working on it fills the time during processions.

* Note for future legal research: do not bother state legislators' staff on the last couple days of the session when they're still hammering out school funding. Even those whose ingrained sense of courtesy kept them from being impatient were falling asleep in the middle of sentences because they'd been working such long hours.

** That is indeed reflected glory I'm enjoying, as I never came anywhere near the GPA level necessary for graduating with honors.

May 31, 2005 02:28 AM | TrackBack
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