Prayer-in-schools backers lose a round, but don't quit

"Parents who don't take their kids to Sunday School, don't do anything religious on weekends, want the school to do it for them. The public school can't be a surrogate for the church or family." - Dr. James Wood, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Washington

"If the parents aren't teaching the children how to pray and the churches aren't teaching the parents, where will it come from?" -- the Rev. Paul Pierce, Boston, author of the now-defunct Massachusetts school prayer law.

It's an issue that refuses to go away.

Advocates of prayer in public schools felt they had scored a significant victory earlier this year when a Massachusetts law, enacted last fall, permitting student-led voluntary prayers at the start of each school day took-effect. Six weeks later, the state's Supreme Judicial Court declared the law unconstitutional.

But there is every indication that pro-school prayer forces will keep trying, in Massachusetts and other states.

They have their work cut out for them. As the matter stands now, any new law permitting prayers in schools will have to be worded so as to comply with the US Supreme Court's 1963 ruling banning compulsory school prayers.

There is a move afoot to nullify that constitutional ban through legislation. Fundamentalist religious leaders plan a rally in Washington, D.C., which they expect thousands of their followers to attend. One purpose of the gathering will be to push for passage of a proposal by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina that would remove US Supreme Court jurisdiction over school prayer cases and force all such controversies to be resolved by state courts. It is an amendment to the Supreme Court Jurisdiction Act, which makes changes in appellate court jurisdiction.

Massachusetts school-prayer advocates thought they had found a way around the 1963 Supreme Court Decision, but the March 13 Massachusetts ruling found the Bay State law in Violation of the church-state separation clause of the First Amendment.

The Massachusetts law provided for classroom prayers only if students wished to lead them, and teachers as well as students who did not wish to participate were permitted to leave the room.

Like some other states, Massachusetts has a statute on the books that provides for a moment of silent (and voluntary) meditation at the start of each school day. The US Supreme Court has indicated that such laws do not violate the Constitution. Legislators are working on a bill to reinstate voluntary meditation in the public schools, which had been superceded by the prayer law.

Some who have monitored the church-state separation issue for the last two decades suggest the revived interest in school prayer stems from a "rebirth" of nationalism.

The school prayer movement has become sophisticated over the years. In the 1960s parents protesting the Supreme Court ban picketed and withdrew their children from public schools.Today, school prayer organizers have more "political savvy," says Gerald Renner, editor of the Religious News Service.

"It's tied to the presidential campaigns," he observes. "We're seeing the creation of all kinds of political action groups -- the fundamentalists, creationists."

In 1976 Ronald Reagan was supported by school prayer advocates. And this year all the Republican candidates for president except John B. Anderson have indicated support for voluntary prayer in public schools.

Arguments cited in the Massachusetts case may forecast the timbre of future controversy. Proponents argued:

* In a 1972 state referendum, 84 percent favored some form of voluntary prayer. Classroom prayer "accommodates the religion of the majority of people," said Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General Stephen Schultz.

* References to God appear in the national motto, "In God We Trust;" on currency; and in the traditional pronouncement, "God save this court;" and a prayer is offered at the opening of each day in Congress. "The Founding Fathers never intended that government leaders should not rely on a deity to guide government affairs," Mr. Pierce says.

Opponents, including the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (CLUM) which fought the law, argued:

* When a teacher asks for a volunteer to lead the class in prayer, "it says that religion has a special place in the government, and a government representative sanctions it," said Boston attorney Kenneth Sweder.

* The law may seem harmless, since it permits teachers and students who do not wish to participate to leave the room, but students opting to leave may be subject to the psychological pressure of being different from their peers.

* The law makes the classroom an arena for determining public policy, said teachers who objected to being "put in the middle."

* The law creates "an administrative vacuum," said one Boston headmaster. Some principals asked: Are student volunteers permitted to offer anything they choose for a prayer?

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