Pollsters may find there is a clear majority of Americans who would answer "No!" to the simple question: "Should God be banned from the classroom?" The president appeals to this group with his proposal for a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in the schools. It is, however, a certainty that this concensus will begin to dissolve once the question moves beyond a general statement of principle. The practical problem of putting pro-prayer sentiment into effect inevitably causes conflict. It is the reason the courts have kept the government out of the business of school prayer for two decades.
Is it really possible to have voluntary prayer when one is talking about six-year-olds? The suggestion that a child of this age will have the independence, intellectual conviction and courage to decline to participate in a part of the classroom ritual endorsed by his teacher and encouraged by his peers is naive. Nor are teen-agers much more likely to assert independence. Let us all stop talking about a prayer chosen by state authorities and recited in every classroom as if it could be voluntary. It cannot be.
Facing that fact brings us to a central problem, one on which public opinion would split 50 ways. It is the choice of the prayer which would be authorized.
Assume that the state wishes to accommodate all religious groups by giving each an opportunity to select the official prayer. Then send out the pollsters into New York to see how Jews would like their children to pray to Allah once a month to accommodate the growing number of Black Muslims in the city. Ask the parents of Yazoo City, Miss., how they feel about the Hail Mary in third grade, or the people of South Boston whether the Lord's Prayer ends with the phrase "deliver us from evil" or "for Thine is the kindgom and the power and the glory forever." Clearly, such a system won't work. Even in the most homogeneous American community, where a nondenominational prayer might be composed, there would be questions. Does anyone doubt that that sooner or later some group would try to force the revision of the prayer to ask the Almightly for "His or Her blessing"?
It was exactly this kind of conflict--putting the state in the middle of a dispute over the form and content of prayer--that led the Supreme Court to take the government out of this business altogether. Reopening this question, after 20 years of settled practice, is unwise. Americans--even those who strongly objected to the Supreme Court's decision two decades ago--have accommodated to the rule that religion belongs in the home and in the church but not in the public schools.
The state should stay out of the business of deciding whose God and which prayers are suitable for all our children.