Mandated school prayer: let's consider its impact on children

AMERICA'S children are often caught in the cross fire of the political battles of adults. Whether the issue is day care, adoption, busing for purposes of integration, or mandated school prayer, youngsters are the most affected. And if they don't get a direct say, at least their protection and well-being should be of prime concern in making decisions.

Public policy in the area of child placement has made major strides in this direction. Now, instead of automatically following traditional formulas in custody cases, for instance, many enlightened courts are looking primarily at what would be ''in the best interest of the individual child.'' Judges often seek the views of youngsters before making their decisions.

Why can't this same yardstick be used in the controversy over school prayer? This is not to recommend a youth plebiscite on the issue - but a recognition of the possible effects on individual youngsters if Congress or the courts were to allow such a practice.

Children in general have no political clout. They can't vote. They have few or no financial resources. They are not organized in pressure groups. Youth law groups and public-policy organizations such as the Children's Defense Fund often take up their causes. But these lobbies are traditionally underfunded and understaffed. They must choose their fights carefully. They often opt to go to the mat for the most oppressed of the underaged: the poor, the homeless, and the abused. And rightly so.

But, before Congress disposes of an amendment mandating prayer in the schools or the Supreme Court votes to uphold or strike down the ''moment of silence'' concept in an Alabama case under consideration, should there not be consideration of the impact on individual children?

If prayer is prescribed, as many would have it, some youngsters will be confused by possible contrast in format and presentation with what they have been taught at home or in their church or synagogue. For more than a few, prayer is very personal. They are guided by the biblical inscription to ''go into the closet and shut the door.'' This is a far cry from going into the gymnasium or auditorium or even the homeroom. Further, youth from homes that reject traditional concepts of God and prayer will be put in a difficult position of going along with the crowd or being singled out for ridicule or worse.

The formally prescribed ''moment of silence'' presents the same problems, particularly for the elementary school child. Even if participation were voluntary, a youngster would need to have special courage to ask to be exempted from this exercise.

These are unfair positions in which to place a child. In order to refuse to participate in this type of exercise in school, a youngster might be forced to identify his religious views, or lack of them - and, by implication, those of his family. On its face, this is illegal. A school may not inquire into a student's religious faith or denominational ties. Under many state laws, colleges are even barred from gathering this information for the purposes of sharing it with campus church-related groups.

Up to now, mandated prayer in the public schools has been held by the courts to be in conflict with the so-called ''establishment clause'' (which forbids the formation of a state-run church) of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Generally, such prayer has been seen as intrusion by the state in religious matters and as church interference in government.

However, the present highly volatile church-state debate in the political arena has put the issue back in the spotlight. Sadly, the arguments have been combative, emotional, and fear-inducing. One side speaks of the decay of ''Christian'' and moral values in society. It decries rising juvenile delinquency, use of drugs, and rejection of parental control. And it concludes that ''God in the classroom,'' or prayer in the school, will at least neutralize this trend. Another view warns against the imposing of denominational values on youngsters and the inflexibility of fundamentalist groups, which, it says, are promoting bigotry and religious persecution, not spiritual values.

Children themselves are unlikely to be the winners in this confrontation. And if Congress and/or the Supreme Court decides that school prayer, is an ''accommodation'' of religion, rather than than an ''intrusion'' (as the Supreme Court has decreed in other recent cases involving tax credits for parochial school education and the erection of Christmas displays on public property), schools had better be prepared to set up guidelines as to the time, place, and form of prayer, as well as qualifications for exemption.

Ironically, working out these logistics may require even greater involvement or intrusion of the state than the allowing of prayer itself. We are already seeing confusion over how to implement this type of activity since the recent passage by Congress of ''equal access'' legislation permitting religious student groups to meet in public school buildings before and after classes.

Religion has an important place in every facet of our lives - but not in these forms. Government can take a much higher road, promoting honesty and morality in public dealings. It can also do a better job in showing compassion for the poor and unfortunate.

The Golden Rule goes a long way in guiding children along a positive path. It is neither denominational nor sectarian. But it is supportive of spiritual values and doesn't need government sanction to be effective.

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