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I am no Machiavelli. The ends do not always justify the means. What we seemed to be looking at was the question of whether to endorse a program that promoted a religion. On principle I could not agree with this. Even if in this case the result could be positive, it violated the guarantee of separation of church and state. I believe that any infringement of this, no matter how trivial, undermines the government’s claim to neutrality. Furthermore, we needed to be aware not only of the situation at hand but also of the precedent set for future situations.
But then the decision that seemed so clear to me became hazier. There was more than a month between the presentation and the vote on whether to fund the project. I kept thinking of my experience of the previous summer, working as a counselor at Camp New Horizons. The camp serves kids in Cattaraugus County who have emotional or behavioral problems, often due to poverty, and it is funded by the state. One of the first things I noticed when I got there was the prayer before each meal. This seemed inappropriate to me, since it is a publicly funded camp. I asked returning counselors if the kids were required to say the grace. They gave me confused looks. I explained that I, for instance, am an atheist and would feel uncomfortable saying grace. They wanted to know why it mattered to me if I didn't believe in God. "I don't lack belief in God," I tried to tell them. "I believe in a lack of God." "Wait until the kids get here," they said. "It'll make sense."
After three weeks with those kids, it sure did make sense. Each camper had a story, a strung-out newspaper clipping of tragedy. The only routines they had created for themselves were tantrums, violence, and running away. One girl, for example, would throw a fit between four thirty and five o' clock every day without fail. She would get angry about some minor frustration, sulk for a while, then work herself into such a frenzy that she would have to be restrained. She needed stability in her life, and these outbursts provided routine. Saying grace before meals became part of the pattern of life at camp, and the campers loved it just for that.
They had to make it from one day to the next, and it wasn't going to be separation of church and state that saved their lives. What of it if there was a picture of Jesus painted on the wall of their skate park? They needed routine, focus, and gentle transitions. The simple prayer gave them these. It wasn't out to convert kids or go against their upbringing. By the end of camp, I was the only one converted - converted to the notion of practicality over principle.
And yet, when it came time for the vote, I voted against the proposal. In a way it was a cop out, since I knew that the skate park would win even with my vote against it, which it did, by a narrow margin. I wanted the skate park to be built, but I was concerned about the precedent of funding religious projects. Thankfully, I was able to vote on principle without sacrificing the community benefit. I am still not sure what I believe is right in this case, but at this point in my life I like being unsure. Uncertainty leaves room for growth, change, and learning. I like that.