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The Power of Prayer : School prayer promises to become a focus on Capitol Hill

November 20, 1994

President Clinton, reflecting last week on his party's stinging electoral defeats Nov. 8 and his own chances for reelection, indicated he is anxious to accommodate the new Republican majority in Congress. Because what he termed "this whole values debate" affords a broad swatch of common ground for the Democratic and Republican parties, Clinton is determined to not be outflanked by the GOP on the issue. Indeed, he has forcefully and eloquently exhorted Americans to assume more personal responsibility on issues ranging from welfare to violence and abortion.

Clinton personally has long supported voluntary prayer in the schools, also a cherished goal of many Republicans and particularly of politically active Christian fundamentalists. Thus it is perhaps unsurprising that this issue surfaced so quickly after the elections and even that the President raised it. At a news conference last week during a state visit to Indonesia, Clinton said he would consider working toward a constitutional amendment that guaranteed a right to prayer in public schools.

That Clinton's aides quickly retreated from his remarks indicates just how problematic the issue of sanctioned public school prayer is. The First Amendment has always unequivocally banned laws that would restrict the right of Americans to voluntarily pray at any time and in any setting--schools, homes, churches. At first look, the push for a separate constitutional amendment permitting voluntary school prayer seems unnecessary.

The questions that lie in the path of any constitutional amendment are formidable. Will there be only a moment of silence? Or will teachers lead students in prayer? On behalf of which religion? What guarantees are there that prayer will not trample on students' rights to hold different religious beliefs--or no religious beliefs?

The debate over school prayer has always been more over symbols than substance. The real challenges are how best to do things like returning sanity to urban fire zones and improving the quality of parenting. Addressing such problems should be the real agenda for leaders in government.

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