Schools and prayer

One surely can understand the view of those Americans who, realizing the importance of a religious underpinning in daily life, would mandate a moment of voluntary prayer or silence in public schools each day. There is indeed a need to provide today's younger generation with stronger moral and spiritual values, to help withstand the amoral materialism so prevalent in today's society.

But enacting one of three proposed constitutional amendments on school prayer now being debated by the US Senate is not the proper approach. No new law is needed. Every American already has the right to pray privately - so long as the prayer is truly voluntary - at any place and at any time, including the right to pray silently in school.

Two proposals before the Senate would authorize voluntary prayer; the third would permit voluntary silent prayer or meditation. Each shares a common failing: it would permit the government to breach the wall between church and state which has given the nation the strength and diversity that derive from three centuries of freedom to worship one's God as one wishes, without pressure of any kind. If any of the three proposals were to become law, subtle peer pressure would impose on young children to conform with the religious beliefs of the majority.

The two bills which propose a voluntary prayer raise an additional issue: Who would select the prayer, and what religious faith would it favor? No single prayer would satisfy all Americans; those who did not support the contents of a chosen prayer would be subtly coerced into following the beliefs it expressed. The result would be to violate the First Amendment, with government throwing its weight, however unintentionally, on the side of supporting a specific religion in individual classrooms. Further, a prayer ''acceptable'' to all religious groups would be so watered down as to lose its spiritual thrust.

The proposal to permit ''silent prayer or meditation'' contains its own particular pitfall. It makes the mistake of inserting into the daily curriculum what should be a thoroughly private and personal experience: prayer, each individual's communication with his God. Three federal district courts already have voided ''moment of silence'' laws in three states, contending in effect that they have a religious purpose. One court, in Massachusetts, has upheld it; the US Supreme Court has not ruled on it.

It is to home and houses of worship that society should look for a renewed strengthening of moral and religious values in daily life, and not to Congress or schools. The latter have their own extremely important work to do to improve the appropriate functioning of society in secular affairs.

In the case of prayer the best government action is no action whatsoever. Let Americans continue to be free to worship their God in the manner of their choosing, privately praying - in school and out - when they are so led. The First Amendment to the Constitution already provides this freedom; no further law is needed. All three bills should be defeated.

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