Ways to foster spiritual values - without school prayer

A young mother recently told a family magazine that she coped with the boredom and frustrations of her daily chores by setting aside a special time each day for reflection and meditation. She said this brought her renewal and joy. And now other members of her family are doing the same thing.

Stories like hers are almost commonplace but by no means insignificant. And they tend to put the debate over school prayer into new perspective.

For prayer to be effective, it must be personal, sincere, inspired.

Proposals for prescribed, recited prayer in a school setting or for moments of silence inevitably generate controversy. Among the many questions raised: Would organized prayer in school serve to ''establish'' or ''promote'' religion, as forbidden by the United States Constitution, or would it merely accommodate the guaranteed expression of religion? And is this kind of controversy better resolved by individual states or by the federal government?

Amid the tough questions, one thing is certain: A majority of the American public - 81 percent according to a Gallup poll - favor school prayer. Their underlying desire, it appears, is for a kind of nonmaterial dimension in their children's education. Interestingly, other Gallup studies have shown that most Americans hold ''spiritual values'' dear, but fewer have denominational beliefs or memberships.

Is it possible to satisfy the yearnings for religious or spiritual nourishment without becoming entangled in a constitutional debate? I think it is. The answer lies in an individual tolerance for diverse religious beliefs. Also needed is a quest by schools and families to open up thought, for the good of children, to the significance of religious questions.

The late Robert Maynard Hutchins, renowned educator and outspoken civil libertarian, defined the main objectives of education as ''wisdom'' and ''goodness.'' In support of such goals, three alternatives to school prayer seem appropriate:

* Like that young mother, families could set aside time each day - preferably before school or work - for individual religious study, Bible reading, prayer, or group discussions designed to be a spiritual bolster for the day.

School districts might even consider delaying the morning schedule 20 minutes to allow for this. Certainly some hard-liners might even view such tinkering with the schedule as a violation of separation of church and state, but is it really?

* School students - particularly those in the lower grades - should be encouraged, in a share-with-your-classmates setting, to relate experiences in which love, compassion, or devotion have helped them solve problems. Discussion of denominational beliefs would not ordinarily be in order. But, if a second grader should happen to refer to a church or temple or synagogue, the student shouldn't be made to feel that he or she has trespassed on a sacred constitutional prohibition. Teachers should stress the acceptance of religious diversity that has strengthened the fiber of America. Youngsters who have no denominational ties or who don't accept religion at all should be made to feel comfortable within such discussions.

* In upper elementary grades, junior high, and high school, more courses should be offered on the history of religion and ethics. Significantly, there is a renaissance of interest in religious studies in American colleges. High school courses in this area, however, are usually reserved for honors seminars or special programs. There is a big difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion. The former is inappropriate in the public schools. The latter is proper - and desirable.

It is sad that something so precious as religious values has been mired in a political debate over school prayer, and that the deeper issues have been obscured - on the one hand, by people bent on desecularizing the schools and, on the other, by those who want to bar from the classroom any hint of spiritual things.

Cooler and more discerning heads should prevail. We can find ways to nurture and reinforce spiritual and moral values inside and outside the public sector, ways that don't violate the Constitution - which, after all, guarantees our religious freedoms.

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