Prayer in School

PRESIDENT Clinton's aides have been busy backpedaling on a comment he made at a news conference last week in Jakarta.

Responding to a proposal put forth by Rep. Newt Gingrich, the Republican slated to become the next Speaker of the House, Mr. Clinton said he would be willing to consider an amendment to the Constitution allowing voluntary prayer in public schools.

Clinton's aides say his remarks were misconstrued - that he was not talking about an amendment, but rather legislation to promote a ``moment of reflection'' during the school day.

The president needs to make clear where he stands on this issue. As one Democratic member of Congress said, Clinton can't ``be ad hoc-ing all these things.'' There is, after all, an important distinction between government-supported voluntary prayer and a moment of silence, though some people will oppose both and others will not be satisfied with only the latter.

Clinton says he has always been supportive of voluntary prayer in school as long as it is not in any way coercive. He has never, however, been a proponent of a constitutional amendment. His critics say he is ``caving in'' to the Republicans. His supporters counter that he is simply trying to show that he can work on important national issues with a new Republican-dominated Congress.

Efforts to legislate voluntary prayer in schools have been around since 1962. The Supreme Court ruled then that organized prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion by government, even if participation was voluntary. Congress has voted on (and rejected) proposals for a constitutional amendment a number of times since then. Presidents Reagan and Bush were in favor of such proposals. And now the idea is back, in the form of proposals from Mr. Gingrich and others.

The Bill of Rights has never before been amended, and now is not the time to do it.

We very much favor prayer - at home, in school, at any time or place. Every individual should and does have the right to pray silently anywhere - including in school. But that prayer should not be sanctioned by the government. A constitutional amendment on school prayer would breach the important separation of church and state.

The Republicans who were recently elected to office got there by saying they want to shrink the role of government. Those advocating a constitutional amendment on this issue are proposing just the opposite.

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