ON THE SHELF above her kitchen table, my sister Ellen has arranged a set of antique children's alphabet blocks to spell out this advice: "PRAY ALWAYS."
The tableau sums up the twin pillars of my sister's life: country decor and a constant, whispered conversation with God.
When I think about Ellen rushing through days that are familiar to so many of us -- a job, a husband who works shifts, three kids and a packed activity calendar -- I imagine her praying.
I think of her uttering breathless little comments to God, their xTC relationship reduced by the demands on Ellen's time to the kind of shorthand speech married couples use.
Ellen wants that kind of relationship with God for her children. But she knows, as do I, that it won't come to them over the loudspeaker in their classrooms.
I do not believe -- and neither, I am convinced, does anyone else who deals with children -- that they can be placed on a path to righteousness by something as simple as a scripted school prayer or even a moment of silent meditation in their classrooms.
I also believe that formation of our children's character is too important a task to be left to the local school board and its debated, compromised, committee version of God.
And so it confounds me that there should be such acrimony in this debate.
Those pushing hardest for the restoration of school prayer are the same ones who are trying to slap the hand of government as it reaches deeper into our lives. They are the same ones who believe family is the essential building block of our society.
I don't understand why they would want to give government -- be it Congress or the local school board -- any role in the faith life of their family.
Certainly 60 seconds of daydreaming every morning is not going to build character in the next generation, nor is it going to produce the kind of intimacy with God that my sister has. I am at once confused and wary about this fuss over a moment of silent prayer to begin the school day.
But I would agree that the pendulum has swung too far in the 30 years since the Supreme Court ruled that organized classroom prayer is unconstitutional.
Schools have given extreme messages -- the banning of any essays or art projects that mention religion -- as well as mixed messages. Tests may not be administered on religious holidays, but only secular symbols may be displayed during those holidays.
Public schools try to pretend religion doesn't exist because they think that is what the First Amendment requires. In fact, the Constitution bans the establishment of a state religion. It does not ban religious practices in public places. It does not prohibit students from praying in schools. It prohibits schools from writing the prayers or making the kids say them out loud.
To correct this misunderstanding and to neutralize the effort by congressional Republicans to use school prayer as cudgel, President Clinton declared that nothing in the First Amendment "converts our schools into a religion-free zone" and asked Education Secretary Richard W. Riley to send clarifying guidelines to schools in time for the start of this academic year.
Even a quick reading of those guidelines shows how much religious freedom there is in schools: Students can, on their own, pray or read Bibles or other religious works, but they may not compel another student to listen or participate.
Students can also use religious symbols in their art work or religious ideas in their writing.
They can wear religious items in school, even the Jesus T-shirts so popular now -- as long as the school allows other T-shirts.
Teachers can teach the role of religion in history, art or music, and they can teach about religious holidays. They cannot, however, promote a religion or celebrate a holiday in any but a secular way.
In these guidelines, there is a balance that recognizes the role of religion in history and allows for private expression of faith, but forbids any hard sell.
None of this means that schools may not teach common moral values such as honesty, respect and civility.
In fact, if our children displayed those values more often, we might not be so certain that only fervent prayer can save them.