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Rep. Newt Gingrich's call for a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in public school has rekindled the smoldering debate over this issue. The resulting conflagration on Capitol Hill will burn up much time, money, and political capital as religious and nonreligious constituents vent their passions in letters, lobbying, and legal analyses.

The process leading to a vote promises to divide believers and generate more heat and smoke than light. So the end product needs to be worth the investment and the risk. A clarification of students' rights to all forms of religious expression would be worth the fight; an amendment simply permitting audible prayer in the classroom would not.

Revising the Bill of Rights sets a potentially dangerous precedent. Yet if school officials persist in their disrespect for, and outright denial of, student religious expression, such a drastic measure may be called for. Too many teachers, administrators, and lawyers adhere to the insidious notion that the First Amendment's prohibition on establishment of religion requires them to keep their schools "religion-free." In many schools, that means no singing of religious songs at choir concerts (there go most of the classics), no sharing of religious literature on campus, and no wearing of T-shirts with a religious message. All too frequently, principals and school boards deny student Bible clubs' request for meeting space, despite the ten-year-old federal statute that expressly guarantees equal access to campus facilities. The time has come for an amendment to stop this foolishness.

PROTECT ALL STUDENT RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION

So what should a constitutional solution look like? It should primarily be a restoration (rather than a modification) of First Amendment ...

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In the Magazine

January 9, 1995

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