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Resolving the School Prayer Conflict

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The controversy about school prayer threatens to aggravate the already intense dispute over the role of public schools in America. Flush from their midterm election victory, the new Republican congressional majority is talking about launching a constitutional amendment to reverse the 30-year-old Supreme Court ruling barring formal prayer in public schools. President Clinton says he supports a lesser measure — a law permitting a moment of silence in the classroom.

People on all sides of the controversy feel strongly about their positions. The advocates of prayer in school believe that the moral decline of America can be traced to the court’s ruling that “took God out of the classroom.” Opponents devoutly believe that formal prayer (of which a moment of silence would be but a shrouded variation) would breach the essential wall of separation between church and state. A middle-of-the-road group, which includes the president, purports to seek a resolution that would permit voluntary prayer.

What is frustrating about this dispute is that it is so unnecessary. There is a way for everyone to get what he wants. Yet that happy circumstance is unrecognized by the participants.

How can everyone get what he wants? By erecting a wall of separation between school and state, just as the Founding Fathers did for church and state.

The case for separating school and state is essentially the same as that for separating church and state. The wise founders of this nation removed religion from the politicians’ reach because they knew that forcible imposition of religious beliefs had bled Europe and caused untold misery for centuries. People obviously do not like to have a world view forced down their throats. Education also embodies a world view and values. Government sponsorship of education, then, resembles its sponsorship of religion, and it carries the same risks. Since all government action is coercive (taxation is the most obvious example — try not paying your taxes), government education is necessarily coercive. It is financed through compulsory levies, and students are compelled to attend. (Although parents are legally free to send their children to private schools, the fact that they are forced to support the government’s schools anyway precludes that option for most people.) So public schooling necessarily introduces coercion into many sensitive areas of family life and personal conscience. That is why current disputes over values in public schools are so visceral and bitter.

The coercion inherent in public schooling exposes the futility of the quest for “voluntary” prayer in school. School prayer will be voluntary only when school attendance and financing are voluntary. Until that day, prayer will be rife with compulsion.

Separating school and state resolves the prayer controversy in the most satisfactory way. Parents would finance and send their children to only the schools of their choice. Those who wish to have their children begin the school day with formal prayer will easily find schools to accommodate them. The same will apply for those who want only a moment of silence and for those who want neither.

The hallmark of full privatization of education is freedom of choice. Separation of school and state would put control over education back where it belongs — with the family. That could not help but improve education for children, because a long line of research affirms that the decisive factor that explains the success or failure of education is the presence or absence of family support. When government runs schools, family responsibility is diminished as the state assures parents that their children’s education is safely in the hands of experts.

On narrower grounds, public school prayer should make religious people wary. The integrity of religion is jeopardized by its mixture with politics. School prayer would require civil authorities to decide what prayers are and are not permissible in school. That’s the last thing that religious citizens should want. Will Christians be happy when their children are subjected to pagan odes to Gaia penned by a devout ecologist?

Proponents of school prayer say the issue is freedom of religion. If that’s the case, they should oppose the interjection of prayer into the coercive environment of the public schools. The best protection for religion is the separation of school and state.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.