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School Prayer

by Chris Nicholson

Two of America?s most valued freedoms are the freedoms of speech and

of religion. Because they are such fundamental freedoms in this country,

debates over their scope and limitations are often very impassioned.

One such debate is the question of whether or not prayer should be

mandated in public schools. This is not merely a religious or educational

topic, however; it is also a hotly debated political issue. On one side

are conservatives who believe that encouraging prayer will save the

nation?s morality. On the other are liberals who fear enforced prayers

would impede students? religious rights. In the end, the controversy is

for naught; the law already protects students? rights to voluntary prayer

in the schools, and any further measures to mandate prayers would be

detrimental to the freedoms students should be able to enjoy.

The conservative position is that people need moral guidance, such as

daily prayer in school. Conservatives generally feel that the government

should be more involved in maintaining not only order, but also

discipline (Burns et al. 269). Jesse Helms, a conservative senator from

North Carolina, claims that the nation is engaged in ?a struggle for the

soul of America? (Helms 339). This is representative of many

conservatives? concerns: the nation is out of control, and the best way

to fix the problem is to ?take traditional morality out of government-

imposed exile and?put it back in the place of prominence and respect it

once enjoyed? (Helms 340). Indeed, one of the main planks of the Religious

Right?s platform is restoring organized prayer to public schools.

On the other hand, even other conservatives sometimes question this

extreme moral ideology. Barry Goldwater, a conservative leader, voiced the

concerns of many critics of the Religious Right: ?The Moral Majority has

no more right to dictate its moral and political beliefs to the country

than does any other group, political or religious? (Burns et al. 271).

This is the main focus of critics: if the government is to enforce

morality, whose moral standards will it enforce? Barry W. Lynn, director

of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, puts a finer

point on the argument. It would be nearly impossible to find a prayer that

would suit the religious needs of such a diverse population as can be

found in many public schools. Furthermore, he argues, ?Even if this type

of prayer could be written, who would care to recite such theological

pablum (sic)?? (Lynn 344)

Beyond these concerns, what the Religious Right ignores is that

students already have the right to pray in school if and when they want

to. The Equal Access Act ensures high school students the right to use

school resources for student-initiated religious study (Lynn 345). Plus,

it would be neither legal nor possible to prevent students from praying on

their own. Mark Hatfield, a Republican senator, says that ?prayer is being

given every day in public schools throughout this country that in no way

could we ever abolish, even if we wanted to? (Hatfield 342). While prayer

proponents may cite examples of schools restricting religious freedoms,

these are clearly violations of students? rights, and Hatfield suggests

they would best be dealt with by individual communities, not the federal

government (343).

The only real debate in issue of school prayer is whether the nation

will allow the Religious Right to assign its moral obligations. Whatever

the ultraconservative claims of ?saving? children, mandated school prayers

would only lead to conflicts over whose prayers should be used. Besides,

there are no legal restrictions on students? rights to free exercise of

religion. Essentially, then, all the cries for ?protection? of religious

rights simply fail to acknowledge the fact that anyone who wants to pray

already does so, and anyone who does not should not be forced to.


Burns, James MacGregor, J.W. Peltason, Thomas E. Cronin, and David B. Magleby. ?Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism, Libertarianism.? Government by the People. 16th ed., 1995. Rpt. in Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 1997.

Helms, Jesse A., Mark O. Hatfield and Barry W. Lynn. ?A Debate on School Prayer.? Congressional Digest. Jan. 1995. Rpt. in Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 1997.

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