Two of Americaís most valued freedoms are the
freedoms of speech and of religion.
Because they are such fundamental freedoms in this country, debates over their
scope and limitations are often very impassioned. One such debate is the
question of whether or not prayer should be mandated in public schools. This is
not merely a religious or educational topic, however; it is also a hotly debated
political issue. On one side are conservatives who believe that encouraging
prayer will save the nationís morality. On the other are liberals who fear
enforced prayers would impede studentsí religious rights. In the end, the
controversy is for naught; the law already protects studentsí rights to
voluntary prayer in the schools, and any further measures to mandate prayers
would be detrimental to the freedoms students should be able to enjoy. The
conservative position is that people need moral guidance, such as daily prayer
in school. Conservatives generally feel that the government should be more
involved in maintaining not only order, but also discipline (Burns et al. 269).
Jesse Helms, a conservative senator from North Carolina, claims that the nation
is engaged in "a struggle for the soul of America" (Helms 339). This is
representative of many conservativesí concerns: the nation is out of control,
and the best way to fix the problem is to "take traditional morality out of
government- imposed exile and...put it back in the place of prominence and
respect it once enjoyed" (Helms 340). Indeed, one of the main planks of the
Religious Rightís platform is restoring organized prayer to public schools. On
the other hand, even other conservatives sometimes question this extreme moral
ideology. Barry Goldwater, a conservative leader, voiced the concerns of many
critics of the Religious Right: "The Moral Majority has no more right to
dictate its moral and political beliefs to the country than does any other
group, political or religious" (Burns et al. 271). This is the main focus of
critics: if the government is to enforce morality, whose moral standards will it
enforce? Barry W. Lynn, director of Americans United for the Separation of
Church and State, puts a finer point on the argument. It would be nearly
impossible to find a prayer that would suit the religious needs of such a
diverse population as can be found in many public schools. Furthermore, he
argues, "Even if this type of prayer could be written, who would care to
recite such theological pablum (sic)?" (Lynn 344) Beyond these concerns, what
the Religious Right ignores is that students already have the right to pray in
school if and when they want to. The Equal Access Act ensures high school
students the right to use school resources for student-initiated religious study
(Lynn 345). Plus, it would be neither legal nor possible to prevent students
from praying on their own. Mark Hatfield, a Republican senator, says that"prayer is being given every day in public schools throughout this country
that in no way could we ever abolish, even if we wanted to" (Hatfield 342).
While prayer proponents may cite examples of schools restricting religious
freedoms, these are clearly violations of studentsí rights, and Hatfield
suggests they would best be dealt with by individual communities, not the
federal government (343). The only real debate in issue of school prayer is
whether the nation will allow the Religious Right to assign its moral
obligations. Whatever the ultraconservative claims of "saving" children,
mandated school prayers would only lead to conflicts over whose prayers should
be used. Besides, there are no legal restrictions on studentsí rights to free
exercise of religion. Essentially, then, all the cries for "protection" of
religious rights simply fail to acknowledge the fact that anyone who wants to
pray already does so, and anyone who does not should not be forced to.
Burns, James MacGregor, J.W. Peltason, Thomas E. Cronin, and David B. Magleby.
"Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism, Libertarianism." Government by the
People. 16th ed., 1995. Rpt. in Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Ed.
Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 1997. Helms,
Jesse A., Mark O. Hatfield and Barry W. Lynn. "A Debate on School Prayer."
Congressional Digest. Jan. 1995. Rpt. in Writing and Reading Across the
Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. 6th ed. New York: Longman,