Principal Joy swung open the door to his office. Katie and her Father were already seated. He strode briskly over to Mr. James and extended his hand. "Mr. James", he said, "so good to meet you at last." Steve James smiled wanly. "Likewise", he said.
Principal Joy seated himself in his leather chair. "I must tell you, Mr. James", he began, "how happy we are to have Katie here at Madison Elementary." He beamed at the little girl, who squirmed under his gaze. "She is one of our best students in all of the fifth grade." Mr. James just smiled. The tension in his face was quite visible.
"I dont want to appear rude, Sir", said Principal Joy, "but we have just five minutes before the morning bell. Is there anything I can help you with?"
Steve shifted uneasily in the wooden chair. "Focus!", he said to himself. Clearing his throat he began. "It has come to our attention, Sir, that the school has recently adopted a policy of general prayer at morning assembly."
Principal Joy leaned back in his chair, his fingers steepled. He had been expecting this visit. "As you may be aware, Mr. James, the Supreme Court recently overturned decades of religious oppression, and allowed for voluntary, student led prayer at publicly funded facilities."
Steve nodded slightly. "Yes Sir, I was aware of that. However, I thought that given the ", he paused, picking his way carefully through the verbal minefield, "uh, heterogeneous nature of the faiths represented at this school, that " he trailed off, trying not to meet the Principals unfaltering gaze.
Principal Joys smile remained steady. "What do you mean, Sir?" he asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.
Steve shifted again, a sheen of sweat broke his forehead. "Its just that we that is, our family do not share your faith." He gazed hopefully at the Principal.
There was a tense pause. "I see", said the Principal at last. "Mr. James", he continued, "as you are obviously aware, your particular worldview is not, uh, strongly represented in this community." Mr. James nodded weakly. "Now, your own choice of philosophy is, of course, your constitutional right, but you must remember that the majority of the inhabitants of this town belong to the same tradition." Steve nodded again. "Now, I ask you Mr. James, do you think it fair that we deny the majority of our students their right to religious expression, simply because you do not share their views?"
Steve marshaled his thoughts. "Its just that it makes Katie feel uncomfortable "
There was yet another pause as Principal Joy appeared to consider this. "Im not sure I see why that should be, Mr. James. After all, Im sure that God is pleased with any sincere prayer offered to Him, regardless of the faith of the adherent."
Without thinking, Steve blurted out "But we dont believe in your God!"
To his credit, Principal Joys smile did not slip an inch. The only sign of his mounting annoyance was a tightening of the muscles around his jaws. "I really am sorry, Sir. Really I am. But you must remember that almost all our community does, indeed, believe in the One God." He softened. "However, I understand your dilemma. I will bring it up at the next board meeting, and perhaps we could make arrangements for Katie to sit out the morning prayer."
Miserably, Steve thought "Why not just tattoo unbeliever on her forehead while you are at it." Aloud, he said "Thank you, Sir."
The Principal smiled wider. "Good. Im glad thats settled. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to be at the morning assembly. Katie, you need to run along, too."
"Yes, Sir" said Katie. She stood up an leaned over her Father. "Dont worry, Daddy", she whispered. She pointed to her heart. "Its in here." Steve nodded and planted a kiss on his daughters forehead.
Katie walked briskly down the brushed concrete hallway. Hurrying around the corner, she entered the main hall, and found a spot near the back. The morning prayer was about to begin. The leader this morning was Bill Johnson, again. Although the prayer leader was chosen by student vote every week, it somehow always seem to be Bill, the most popular boy in school.
Confidently, he strode up to the microphone. "Shall we begin?" he asked rhetorically.
There was a general susurration as the entire assembly got to their knees, and made a quarter turn clockwise. This was an old school building, and the hall was facing the wrong direction.
As she knelt, head close to the floor, Katie reached surreptitiously into the breast pocket of her red school jacket. She grasped the battered green Gideons New Testament firmly in her hand as the prayer began.
"There is no God but Allah", intoned Bill, "and Mohammed is His Prophet."[an error occurred while processing this directive]