A proposal for prayer

January 19, 1998

An excerpt from a Wednesday editorial in the Orange County Register:

WOULD posting the Ten Commandments in public schoolrooms help children behave better and, in the long run, improve society?

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Dannemeyer of California is promoting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would stipulate that ''the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage and traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed.''

No 'official religion'

Safeguards would be initiated against establishing an ''official religion'' and against compelling anyone ''to join in prayer or other religious activity.''

The proposed amendment, House Resolution 78, has picked up momentum in recent months, winning increased congressional support and new endorsements from religious groups. It is being sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., and is co-sponsored by 151 other members. It's supported by more than 24 major Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups.

To become part of the Constitution, the Istook Amendment would have to pass Congress on a two-thirds' vote and then be ratified by votes of three-fourths of the state legislatures.

The main intent of the Istook Amendment is to overturn U.S. Supreme Court decisions during the last 40 years that have prohibited official prayer and the posting of the Ten Commandments in the public schools. (Students still can pray ++ on their own or form voluntary Bible-study groups.) Mr. Dannemeyer makes a connection between the mischief of these Supreme Court decisions and the emergence of a host of problems in American society, from declines in education to marital discord to a rise in children born out of wedlock.

We have our qualms about this proposed amendment:

Does this amendment advance religious freedom in a way that the Founding Fathers had in mind?

If it is framed in a way to advance religious freedoms, what are those ways?

What are the practical ways it might play out in the classroom -- and what are the potential threats and benefits?

Mr. Dannemeyer says that such an amendment would allow students and teachers in public schools to freely acknowledge the Ten Commandments, without fear of sanction.

But is this the heart of freedom, to gather and worship?

Do we really want the federal government, through the public schools, playing any role at all in the practice of faith?

Perhaps a better channel for such energies would be to push harder for school choice and greater private support for private and parochial schools. In schools not connected to the government, people can pray without government interference.

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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