Freedom Of Religion And Speech Two of Americas 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 nations morality.
On the other are liberals who fear enforced prayers would impede students religious rights. In the end, the controversy is for naught; the law already protects students 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 conservatives 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 Rights 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 students 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 students 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. Bibliography Burns, James MacGregor, J.W. Peltason, Thomas E.
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New York: Longman, 1997. Helms, Jesse A., Mark O. Hatfield and Barry W. Lynn. “A Debate on School Prayer.” Congressional Digest.
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