On equal access in schools

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AT first glance it would seem a matter of fairness: If any single group is permitted to hold meetings in a school's facilities, every other responsible group should be allowed to -- whether cheerleaders, French club, or student religious organization. The concept is central to the Equal Access Act that Congress passed slightly more than a year ago. Yet when the orientation of a club is religious, other important issues intrude. This term the United States Supreme Court is expected to decide the case of a religious student group that wanted to meet in the Williamsport, Pa., high school before the start of the school day. The outcome of the case, on which the court heard legal arguments last month, may well decide the future of the Equal Access Act.

The fundamental question is whether meetings of religious groups would breach the essential constitutional separation of church and state. Such meetings could put school officials in a position they should not have to occupy: deciding the boundary between a mere meeting, and religious proselytizing. To determine exactly what was occurring, school officials would have to monitor the group and its meetings. It is difficult enough for the Supreme Court to determine whether religious activities are permissi ble on public property, let alone shifting the burden to individual school districts.

The monitoring and the potential for having to decide about proselytizing appear to entangle state officials, in this case school employees, in religious issues, thus eroding church-state separation.

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Any actual proselytizing, of course, would be a totally impermissible breach of that wall of separation.

When Congress passed the Equal Access Act last year, some opponents warned it could lead to less access, not more. In several school districts this has begun to happen. School officials have resolved the potential problem of watchdogging meetings of religious student groups by canceling all extracurricular activities: For students in these schools, ``equal access'' has become ``no access.''

No federal law stops students from privately praying, in school or elsewhere. But the state should mandate neither a specific place for religious meetings nor a time for praying: Private, individual prayer is always appropriate.

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