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Tuesday, February 20, 2024
The independent student publication of The University at Buffalo, since 1950

The Option is Mine

Ever since the issue surfaced during the 1996 elections, I've pondered over whether prayer should be permitted in public school. I previously thought the idea behind school prayer was sparked by Bill Clinton. In fact, I think it was initiated by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. His proposal relating to school prayer was to amend the United States Constitution.

The amendment stated: "Nothing in this constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayers in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any State to participate in prayer. Neither the United States nor any State shall compose the words of any prayers to be said in public schools."

Realizing this would be an amendment to the constitution and not a statute, the former president retracted his support for the republican version of school prayer and tried to advocate prayer in the form of voluntary moments of silence.

Not completely understanding the gist of the matter, I became an advocate of school prayer. Initially, I thought this would provide a chance for children to safely and voluntarily practice their own beliefs, on school grounds, without being harassed. In addition, I thought that authoritative figures, like teachers, would not have the authorization to conduct the prayers.

Upon further research I later realized that my initial understanding was incorrect. Nowhere in Gingrich's proposed amendment does it clarify that teachers, government officials, and other authoritative figures should separate themselves from the children's beliefs. This separation is important because it maintains that unbiased relationship all parents want between their children and their educator.

For example, a Protestant teacher instructing children mostly affiliated with his or her sect might lead a prayer that might make Catholic students in class feel uncomfortable. This would single out Catholic students and might prompt harassment from others. This might also lead the teacher to develop some bias against those who are not affiliated with his or her denomination.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, "If adopted the amendment would allow public officials, including teachers, to dictate how, when and where school children and others should pray, thus undermining one of the core values of the First Amendment: the complete freedom of religious conscience through the non-establishment of religion."

In essence, this amendment would have compromised the First Amendment, which allows for complete religious freedom. People should not be told how, when and where to pray. The First Amendment grants all people living in the United States, citizen or not, the right to pray anywhere, anytime, and anyplace. How can people be told when and how to pray if their religion requires that they pray at certain times during the day?

As for me, I no longer support the concept of school prayer because it is already my right under the constitution to pray at school. I realized that by amending the constitution in this manner the government would deeply affiliate itself with the way its citizens perceive and practice religion. This would set a dangerous precedent, because the concept of religious freedom would vanish. Our country should not coerce or mandate religious beliefs. This would be a great mistake and a terrible aberration for our nation, the leader of the free world.



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