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PERSPECTIVE ON SCHOOL PRAYER : Speaker Gingrich: Look at Vista : When religion is imposed by government, it becomes coercive and thus anathema to true conservatism.

November 20, 1994|MICHAEL GOTLIEB | Michael Gotlieb is the rabbi of Temple Judea in Vista.

VISTA — Voters here prematurely ended their school board's conservative Christian majority in the Nov. 8 election. Ironically, this San Diego County community, which voted along conservative lines on every ballot measure, rejected its school board's right-wing convictions. It ardently opposed the board's imposition of subjects that are the province of one's home or religious beliefs. As a result, four of the five elective seats changed hands, reconstituting the board as liberal and centrist.

The board's former conservative Christian majority represented a legitimate political perspective that has a national following. The members raised issues that express genuine concern for our nation and its youth; for that alone they deserve credit. But the school board's recall was not a reaction to either religious or political titles. It centered on a concern far more significant, one that reflects a broad consensus: The voters in Vista want religion out of the public schools.

Ultimately, the debate was not about sex, God and values; it was about reading, writing and arithmetic. Like so many, the residents here want the public schools to teach their children the necessary essentials, allowing them to integrate the knowledge they acquire elsewhere so that they can make mature, informed decisions. The people here want to find new ways to build the public schools back up, ensuring that they be safe and wholesome environments for education. But most important, perhaps, they want parents to have the freedom to decide what is best for them and their children when confronted with issues that involve personal beliefs and values.

Some people have said that the electorate opted for the recall because the targeted board members had misled the voters of their true intentions before being elected--stealth candidates, as they have been called. But if the school board's policies and political directives had been in agreement with the public, the recall would not have succeeded.

Not surprisingly, the political soul of Vista made it difficult for the school board to continue with its religiously oriented agenda. Conservatives, by definition, oppose government intervention. For them, the less control government has over our lives, the better. On Nov. 8, the voters made their preference known.

Wanting to teach creationism as an alternate approach to evolution is fine, but it does not belong in a public-school science classroom; neither does a sex-ed curriculum loaded with religious innuendo. The problem is, the pendulum swings in both directions, making the whole issue of public-school education even more complex. On the opposite coast, and on the other side of the political spectrum, the public schools in New York City are teaching their children that homosexuality is entirely normal and that a two-parent family is defined as having either a mother and father or two mothers or two fathers. The one thing we can learn from these two extremes is that imposing a value system, be it religious or secular, in the public schools is fraught with difficulties because it touches on so many sensitive areas of personal conviction.

Edmund Burke, whose writings influenced 19th-Century conservative political theory, held that "religion is the basis of civil society." He was right--to a point. To ensure society's civility, religion must flourish, but it must remain separate from government. Religion--the expression of faith--is a private matter. No matter how lofty the religion, when it mixes with government, it becomes coercive. House Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich recently promised "dramatic bold changes" with the newly formed Republican Congress. One of those changes includes restoration of prayers in the public schools. Gingrich ought to take note of the election outcome in Vista, for what happened here is a paradigm for the rest of the nation when exclusively religious values are introduced into the public schools.

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