School Prayer Revisited

As the Senate struggles to surmount party differences and pass major legislation like health insurance and the minimum wage, the House leadership has found time to reintroduce a constitutional amendment aimed at encouraging organized prayer in the public schools.

The school-prayer measure plays straight into the campaign. It was shelved last fall after Republicans deadlocked over wording. But the coming election has given it a bit of fresh momentum.

Bob Dole, so the thinking goes, needs a sure-fire issue to bolster his support among religious conservatives. The Christian Coalition, moreover, could use a floor vote on school prayer to help the millions of voters who receive its guides tell the "good" lawmakers from the "bad."

But while school prayer has some political salience, it remains questionable public policy. Some of the intricacies of the subject arose in a Mississippi case decided by a federal district judge in June. In that case, the judge had to determine the constitutionality of such practices as the use of a school's public-address system for morning prayers and a Bible class traditionally held in a small town's public schools.

Arguments for the practices revolved around the federal Equal Access Act, which requires that public schools maintaining a "limited open forum" for the use of students not exclude anyone from that forum. The still-evolving language of the proposed constitutional amendment also emphasizes "equal access" to benefits - which implies some of its authors may have in mind steps like public funding of religious schools through vouchers, as well as school prayer.

The defendants in the Mississippi case argued that through the prayers, the Christian youth club at the school simply shared its activities with the rest of the school when it, like other organizations, used the public-address system. The court didn't buy that, pointing out that the PA system obviously imposed a specific religious point of view on everyone in the school, without exception.

And the Bible classes? They were voluntary, but they entangled teachers and administrators in an essentially religious exercise, which the court found violated constitutionality tests set down in US Supreme Court rulings on separation of church and state.

The practices struck down in Mississippi were rather obvious breaches of church-state separation, but they might easily be countenanced by the proposed amendment. Some widely used alternatives, such as "moments of silence," don't offend the constitutional standard.

Individual students are certainly free now to pray as the need or the desire arises. And there certainly should be room for religion, and religious points of view, in school discussions of history, culture, and society. Overreacting to legal rulings, some educators over the years have banned any mention of religion or God.

The First Amendment's establishment clause is the basic text. The state, through its teachers and schools, should never be in the position of backing, or disparaging, a particular religious perspective. That's the foundation of religious freedom. A constitutional amendment intended to open the door to school prayer would erode that foundation. It has no real place in American governance, election year or not.

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