WASHINGTON--When the Supreme Court last week reaffirmed the ban on school prayer in a Texas case involving student-led ''invocations'' at football games, it did more than vindicate one of the fundamental and vital constitutional principles of this republic. The opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens for a 6-3 majority was a timely reminder that this society works best when institutions focus on their own responsibilities, rather than invade another's territory.
In this era of megamergers and rampant egos, the aggrandizing tendencies of organizations and individuals need to be checked by the injunction to mind your own business.
As Justice Stevens wrote, ''We recognize the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions' significance.'' The good people of the Santa Fe, Texas, Independent School District felt that the Lord's blessings should be invoked before their high school gridiron contests. ''But,'' the Justice added, ''such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment.''
That amendment, guaranteeing the ''free exercise'' of religion but barring state-sponsored prayer, was written by men who had personally witnessed the corrosive effects of bringing sectarian conflict into the realm of government. The court has not forgotten that lesson, even if many other Americans have.
This is one of the most religiously observant nations on the face of the earth. Churches, synagogues and mosques abound, and are well-filled. In millions of homes, prayer is an important part of the daily or weekly schedule. Youngsters raised in such homes frequently pray quietly or silently in school or on the athletic field.
Yet, there is an impulse to commandeer schools or other public facilities for additional demonstrations of our religious nature, even though ''official prayer'' often is so sanitized, to avoid offense to adherents of other faiths, it loses its character.
If half the energy devoted to insinuating prayer into schools were devoted to strengthening the practice of religion in home and church, this would be a better nation.
But this is far from the only example of attempted line-jumping that seems to characterize our time. In our superheated economy, mergers of all sorts excite investors even as they dismay consumers. United Airlines, a great east-west carrier, wants to snap up U.S. Airways, with its north-south routes. But workers at both firms and communities served by either one wonder, with reason, what the conglomerate will mean for them.
The Supreme Court will have to decide whether a district court judge was correct in ruling that Microsoft should be split into two companies and be forced to separate some of its software programs from its Windows operating system, in order to spur competition and comply with the anti-trust laws. And on the international scene, the European Union may soon intervene to block the merger of WorldCom Inc. and Sprint Corp., on grounds it would give the resulting entity too much control of the Internet.
At a more mundane level, I have gone through three banks as the collector of my credit card payments in about as many years--involuntarily--and have wound up writing checks to something called SunTrust, an outfit with which I am entirely unfamiliar.
Under these circumstances, line-drawing is essential, whether to preserve constitutional principles or marketplace competition. But beyond that, we need to recognize that sticking to your own business makes for a healthy society.
My own field of journalism would benefit from remembering that. The career lines of journalism--the honorable tradition of working up from a night police beat to more important assignments--have been blurred by the increasing tendency to import ''stars'' from the political and entertainment worlds and give them high-profile media jobs.
Equally insidious is the tendency to make journalists behave as if they were politicians, putting them onto TV panels where the premium is not on reporting and analysis but on argumentation and put-downs. We have plenty of politicians who are skilled at soundbites; journalists are poor substitutes for candidates and officeholders in these staged debates.
But more important, when we abandon our real work of gathering news and helping make sense of it, we leave a void. This country would be a better place if we didn't ask schools to function as churches, if companies were caring for customers rather than looking for mergers, if reporters covered politicians instead of imitating them, and if banks just stopped changing their names.
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