Stumped by courts, conservatives strike back on religion issue

The school-prayer lobby is on the warpath. Jolted by three recent US Supreme Court decisions strongly affirming the constitutional separation of church and state, conservatives are gearing up for what they say will be their strongest efforts yet to reverse what they see as the court's ``hostility'' toward America's heritage of free religious expression.

These efforts include:

A bill sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah calling for a constitutional amendment to allow silent prayer in public schools.

A measure proposed by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina that would strip the federal courts of jurisdiction on matters involving prayer in public schools.

A bill drafted by President Reagan and introduced by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina calling for a constitutional amendment authorizing vocal prayer in public schools. A similar bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Thomas N. Kindness (R) of Ohio. (The Reagan bill was defeated in the Senate last year by 11 votes.)

The latest jolt to conservatives on the church-state issue came Monday, when the Supreme Court ruled that states could not send public school teachers into parochial schools. The decision is seen as adding more bricks and mortar to the constitutional ``wall of separation'' between church and state. It comes at a time when many conservatives, including Mr. Reagan, would like to see much of that wall dismantled.

[Education Secretary William J. Bennett yesterday denounced the high court's ``parochiaid'' ruling, and the administration is weighing possible steps to circumvent it. See story, Page 4.]

``People are beginning to understand the open hostility to religious expression in this country,'' says Roy Jones, legislative director for the Moral Majority. ``I think the decision Monday was just another example of the Supreme Court's open hostility toward not only freedom of religious expression but a matter of fairness to people who have deep-seated religious beliefs.''

Last month, the high court dealt a severe blow to school prayer proponents when it struck down an Alabama law that authorized public school teachers to conduct a ``moment of silence'' for prayer at the start of class each day.

Mr. Jones says that decision has ``galvanized'' school prayer supporters, giving new momentum to congressional efforts to undermine Supreme Court school prayer precedents.

``We think the whole decision will just add fuel to our fire,'' he says, noting that the Moral Majority expects to mail out some 100 million letters and fliers on the issue by the fall of 1986.

``School prayer is becoming the civil rights issue of the next generation,'' Jones says.

Proponents of school prayer are now emphasizing their contention that in forbidding students from vocally praying in school, the Supreme Court is violating individual students' right to religious belief and expression.

This argument represents a shift away from the traditional assertion that prayer would help get religious values back into United States schools.

Opponents of prayer in school argue that special provisions for prayer are unnecessary. There are no barriers, they say, to children praying at home before school, after school, or even silently at any time during school.

They say that making prayer an organized activity in school may subject some children to a form of religious peer pressure.

The source of all the controversy stems from the 16-word clause in the First Amendment that comprises the primary guidance from the nation's founding fathers on the church-state issue: ``Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . . .''

Reagan and other conservatives have long complained that the Supreme Court has overinterpreted this clause of the Constitution.

They note that the First Amendment was intended by the founding fathers simply to forbid the establishment of a national religion (such as the Church of England in colonial times) and the favorable treatment of any one religion over another.

Conservatives complain that through a series of Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1962 and 1963, the courts and the government have become increasingly antagonistic toward religious values. They see a drift by the government from a stance of ``accommodation'' of religious expression to one of ``toleration'' of religious expression.

Others have applauded the high court's rulings, maintaining that excessive entanglement of government in church affairs or of churches in government affairs would pose a significant threat to national unity and freedom.

In his majority opinion Monday in the parochiaid case, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote: ``. . . Just as religion throughout history has provided spiritual comfort, guidance, and inspiration to many, it can also serve powerfully to divide societies.''

The solution to this problem, he wrote, is for the court ``jealously to guard the right of every individual to worship according to the dictates of conscience . . . .''

Justice Brennan added that government must maintain a ``course of neutrality among religions, and between religion and nonreligion.''

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