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Debating school prayer

We need to recognize the serious nature of the current school prayer debate. The Senate voted last year to adopt a school prayer amendment and attach it to another piece of legislation. This amendment of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of north Carolina would remove Supreme Court jurisdiction over state laws relating to voluntary prayers in public schools or in public buildings. The proposal is now in the House of Representatives where Philip Crane (R) of Illinois leads the effort to have the Helms petition discharged from the Judiciary Committee and brought to the floor of the House.

Critical issues going beyond school prayer are involved in this debate: the question of jurisdiction of federal courts, the question of separation of powers between the various branches of government, the sanctity of a person's faith and religious practice, the right to practice no religion, and the meaning of such words as "voluntary prayer" and "nondenominational prayer." John M. Harmon, assistant attorney general, has testified that the Justice Department considers the bill unconstitutional, and many national religious denominations have described the bill as unnecessary from a theological viewpoint and unwise from a public policy perspective.

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It is important to note the strong and continued right-wing religious pressures to "Christianize the public schools," to rescue them from "godless secular humanism." This movement is of special concern for those who believe that this effort could in fact cheapen devotional life while claiming to defend prayer, to say nothing about the offense to the nonreligious and to the minority religious groups in any given community. Voluntary prayer has never been outlawed, and there is no need to "return to it."

The 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions on prayer in public schools are misquoted and those who support the court decisions are labeled "liberal." However, it is important to note that proponents of government-organized school prayer seem inclined to ignore the fact that the majority of religious denominations and the many evangelical Christians within them support the Supreme Court decisions, confident that God is in education and that to be secular is not to be godless. The issue needs to be more clearly defined as to whether or not formalized prayers should really be clamored for in institutions dedicated to the goodness of education and to the purpose of learning.

All the questions of states rights, the meaning of voluntary prayer, and the reality of God in classes are truly important. But there is also the further issue in this election year whether there is such a thing as "nondenominational prayer." Can there be real meaningful communication with God based on a common-denominator exercise watered down to fit? Do not such efforts distort the real meaning of prayer and of worship?

The Supreme Court decisions are good and proper and reflect a healthy separation of church and state. The Helms amendment and the Crane discharge petition are neither helpful to the church or to the nation, to prayer or to Bible reading.

The purpose of prayer is to change the person who prays and not to "Christianize" society or to discipline children -- a distinction which must be maintained in the emotion-filled atmosphere which surrounds this debate. It is also important that members of the House of Representatives be assured they are not going to be considered opposed to religion or to be placed on some religious "hit list" because in good conscience they support the Supreme Court decisions and oppose government-mandated prayer in the public schools.

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