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Religion in the Schools

In 1962 the U.S. Supreme Court banned organized prayer in the public schools as a violation of the First Amendment. Since then, under pressure from their constituents, at least 22 state legislatures (not including California’s) have sought to reintroduce prayer into the schools by hook or by crook, and the issue has been emotional and wrenching. A constitutional amendment to allow school prayer was defeated in Congress last year, but President Reagan has said that he thinks one should be enacted.

Now the Supreme Court has again addressed the issue, and by a 6-3 vote strongly reaffirmed its conclusion that there is no place for prayer in the public schools--no matter how it is disguised. States that have adopted a “moment of silence” in the schools to allow for prayer have violated the Constitution, the court ruled Tuesday. On this issue the First Amendment is crystal clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ,” it says, and six of the justices correctly concluded that the words mean just what they say. Allowing prayer in schools would respect the establishment of prayer as a religious practice. “The government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

Proper as the decision is, it does not go far enough. It appears to leave the door open to states to adopt new legislation mandating moments of silence without mentioning prayer. Whether any of them will pursue that unwise course remains to be seen, but it seems clear that the political pressure for praying in school will not soon go away. More’s the pity. Parents have ample opportunity to instruct their children in the religious beliefs that they want to teach them without instructing other people’s children in those beliefs as well.

Religious freedom is one of the cornerstones of American society. The earliest settlers came to these shores to be able to practice religion as they saw fit, and not be subject to someone else’s religious views. The Supreme Court correctly understands that prayer in school violates each individual’s right to practice the religion of his choice or to practice no religion if that is his belief. State legislatures would show sound judgment by adopting the same understanding. Religion in any form should be left out of public schools.

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