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A Call for Prayer in School From a Most Unlikely Source

Let Us Pray: A Plea for Prayer in Our Schools

By William J. Murray

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William Morrow & Co.

205 pp., $20

In 1960, William J. Murray became one of the most famous teenagers in America. His mother, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, sued the Baltimore school system on behalf of her son, charging that he was being forced illegally to participate in prayer at school. When the United States Supreme Court heard her case in 1963, it agreed.

In deciding Murray v. Curlett by a decisive 8 to 1 vote, the court ruled that school-initiated prayer violated the First Amendment, which prohibits government from setting up a state religion or preferring one religion over another.

The publicity surrounding the case made Murray a quite well-known and equally unpopular student at the time. Today, Murray has made a 180-degree turn. He has become a conservative Christian dedicated to returning religion to the public square including schools.

His story is the engaging tale of a complex, ambitious mother who becomes embittered when she feels religion fails her. She seeks answers in atheism and communism, at one point trying unsuccessfully to emigrate to the Soviet Union with Murray and his younger brother. Eventually, the school prayer case becomes her way of striking a blow against her nemesis, religion.

But Murray has more on his mind than the story of his remarkable mother and her moment in popular American history. He uses this story to make a case for prayer in schools. His arguments will be familiar to religious and political conservatives, many of whom have continued to oppose the court decision over the last three decades.

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His real audience, however, is the many Americans of moderate persuasion who haven't made up their minds on the issue. As he points out, Americans have ambivalent feelings about religion in public life. "Contemporary Americans live in tension between the desire to express their deeply held religious convictions and the fear of becoming subject to someone else's faith or ideology," he writes.

The Murray decision, he says, opened an era of unfavorable court decisions against prayer in public life. "The clear message of the courts is that religious faith is volatile and potentially explosive," he says. But in spite of its highly charged role in American society, "The smugness of court decisions through the 1960s and 1970s suggested that religion was an outdated cultural artifact possessing sentimental value but of limited utility in the modern world."

For Murray, the posture of the courts has had very troubling consequences. However unwittingly, by misinterpreting the Constitution, the courts have contributed to a government approach toward religion that belies the careful neutrality it professes. The court is, in fact, hostile towards religious practice. By disqualifying religion as a moral guide, moral relativism has inevitably stepped into the vacuum as the value system in schools, he says.

These are issues that trouble many Americans. Whether Murray's solutions will satisfy equally strong desires not to have religious teachings forced upon them will be decided by each reader.

One redress he advocates is the constitutional amendment, still being shaped at this writing by the Republican leadership in Congress. It would limit federal involvement in school prayer.

By returning decision making to the local level, Murray argues, acceptable approaches can be found that meet the needs of each community.

That argument is short on specifics, and Murray knows it. But the case for change is too strong to be ignored, he says. Just because a return to moral education and discussion of religious values in school raises some difficult questions of church and state separation, he says, it cannot be assumed that these are insoluble.

"Secular neutrality has not delivered the goods," he writes. "Our schools are not better off for it." That's a statement with which Americans of all political stripes would find agreement, though they might not agree with him as to why.

Murray and many others today, both conservative and liberal, say a major factor is the lack of moral education. Conservatives have chosen to make school prayer the symbolic rallying point for a call to moral education.

As the debate over a constitutional amendment heats up this fall, all Americans will need to carefully think through the debate. Murray's concise, readable book is a valuable summation of one important point of view.

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