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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
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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