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America called to prayer

Education could become a political battleground in the United States following the sweeping Republican victory in Congress. The voucher system and prayer in schools are major platforms of the new conservative agenda.

Georgian populist Newt Gingrich, a college professor during the 1970s and Speaker-elect of the House of Representatives, is calling for an amendment to the American Constitution which would allow schools to hold daily prayers.

In a country where separation of church and state is as fundamental as the right to free speech, this could cause an outcry. But Mr Gingrich is determined to hold a vote on the issue by next summer.

In an interview with the Washington Post, he said the post-1960s era had been an aberration in American political culture and he expected to fight "the elites" who oppose government efforts to mould the moral character of Americans.

Until the mid-1960s, he explained, "there was an explicit, long-term commitment to creating character. It was the work ethic, it was honesty, right and wrong, it was not harming others, it was being vigilant in the defence of liberty. It was very clear and we taught it."

He believes Thomas Jefferson's use of the word "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence - "because he believed in it" - should be impressed on every schoolchild.

Democrats are saying very little in reply, hoping that Republicans will engage in fierce debates themselves. One veteran Congress-watcher said of the voluntary school prayer proposal, "It's nuts and it's not what people voted for."

The proposal is supported, of course, by the religious Right, and probably by many Christians who voted Republican. A number of Southern states have passed laws allowing for school prayer, including South Carolina where "a mandatory minute of silence" is prescribed in schools. In Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia, student-initiated prayers are authorised.

Even critics concede that there is an enormous support building up for some form of private reflection or prayer in schools.

Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way, said polls showed that between 60 to 70 per cent of Americans were in favour of school prayer.

School vouchers - for parents to "spend' on state or public schools - are opposed by Democrats who argue that they would hurt local schools, but supported by many Republicans who won state governor races in the elections.

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