I read with interest your essay “Leave the Kids Alone” in the September issue of Chronicles. Concerning prayer in public schools, I wonder whether the dispute might be less a question of “religious liberty” than of “thought control.” I have therefore devised an inexpensive experiment which might clarify the issues.
The problem is that many of those parents who are religiously inclined claim that their offspring ought to be able to pray in school, while those who are not religiously inclined argue that institutionalized moments of prayer or silence in the classroom would, via the very real power of peer pressure, unduly influence their children. What would happen, then, if schools in which this problem is particularly apparent were to designate a special time and place for a moment of prayer or silence? If school begins at 8:30 a.m., those children feeling it necessary to begin the academic day with communal prayer might be permitted to do so in some temporarily assigned space, perhaps a music room or cafeteria, at 8:25 or so, joining the nonpraying students in homeroom a few minutes later. Children wishing to pray communally in school can do so; children not wishing to pray are not subjected to the discomfort of being immersed, however temporarily, in someone else’s religion at taxpayer expense.
Such an experiment would permit us to identify the real motives of the opposing sides in the school prayer controversy. If agitators against prayer in public schools are simply interested in the “right” of their children to enjoy freedom from religious peer pressure at taxpayer expense, they should be pleased to learn of an officially sanctioned sequestration of religion from the “learning environment.” On the other hand, those opposing even the use of empty school time and space for a moment’s prayer or silence might logically be presumed to be against religion per se; they would appear in this case to be primarily interested in denying prayer to religious students.
Similarly, if agitators for prayer in public schools are simply interested in the “right” of their children to enjoy a moment’s communal silence or prayer, they should be pleased to learn of the setting aside of a special time and space for that moment. Pro-prayer forces opposing the relegation of communal public-school prayer to a special time and place might logically be presumed to be primarily interested in subjecting nonpraying students to religious peer pressure.
If this experiment were to succeed in bringing about a stable detente between pro- and anti-public-school-prayer forces, we might satisfactorily conclude that the issue has actually been one of “religious liberty” all along, as both sides claim. If, however, it were to fail, or if its trial were to be denied in advance, we might satisfactorily conclude that the issue is actually one of “thought control,” neither side wishing to give up access to the minds of the children of the opposing camp. In such a ease, my own suspicion is that American public schools will remain an ideological battleground for years to come.
Most of us dislike the idea of sending our youngsters to battlegrounds; we’d rather that they be schooled in a manner appropriate to our own cultural inclinations. Small wonder, then, that so many of us feel cheated not only by the disparate philosophies of schooltime religion, but by the nature of modern taxpayer-supported schooling itself.
—John C. McLaughlin Tesuque, New Mexico
The Editor Replies:
Your suggestion has the very great merit of clarifying the issues at stake. Its implementation would be almost impossible for the very reasons you indicate. Many believers, looking into their own hearts, would admit to a hidden agenda; the desire to re-Christianize the schools.
For all the attractions of fairness and impartiality, serious controversies are more often settled by an appeal—no matter how veiled—to the principle of power. The case of prayer in schools is no different. What it comes down to, in the end, is the simple question of whose values are to prevail. The failure to take a stand on that issue would be moral suicide.
Still, your idea should be put on the table of every school board meeting. If it proves to be impractical, that would raise the unpleasant question of why we continue to pay taxes to support government schooling.
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