Initiatives in Nine States Rekindle National Debate on School Prayer

Controversy turns on how far the First Amendment can be stretched to protect religious expression in public life

THE school-prayer issue is back, this time with a new twist - as a means to counter mounting violence in crime-ridden public schools.

The latest push comes from District of Columbia councilor Marion Barry, who, in an attempt to fight school violence, recently introduced a bill allowing for ``student-led, nonsectarian, nonproselytizing prayer.'' That means students would be able to say prayers any time during the school day - in the classroom, schoolyard, or over the intercom.

``With all this violence and other problems, we need to get back to trying to allow those who want to pray to do it,'' Mr. Barry said. ``It may set a moral tone at the schools.''

But the push for school prayer goes beyond Washington and its attempts to curb violence.

In this decades-old debate - with lawmakers on one side and the constitutional separation of church and state on the other - there's fresh momentum: Nine states have enacted or are considering reestablishing prayer in tax-supported schools.

Last month, Georgia passed legislation allowing students ``a moment of quiet reflection.'' Tennessee and Alabama passed legislation three weeks ago allowing student-led prayers at school events. Similar bills are pending in South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Florida.

House votes on issue

The House of Representatives voted March 21 to withhold federal education funds from districts that prohibit voluntary prayer in public schools. The Senate last month approved a similar amendment sponsored by Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina.

Critics and advocates say court rulings in the past two years have rekindled nationwide debate on how far the First Amendment can be stretched to protect religious expression in public life.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that it's unconstitutional for school officials to invite clergy to give prayers at commencements (Lee v. Weisman), leaving open the question of how the ruling applies to student-initiated prayers. Another 1992 ruling by the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which covers Texas and Mississippi, allowed for student-led prayers at graduation as long as they don't aim to coerce students into particular beliefs (Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School Districts).

Controversy arises in the interpretation of these two landmark cases. Critics say the high-court ruling underscores the right of individuals not to have religions imposed on them. ``The 1992 Supreme Court decision doesn't prohibit students from praying on their own, but it does prohibit schools from dictating when, where, and how prayers should be held,'' said Bob Peck, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

School-prayer advocates say both rulings stress students' rights to keep religious expression in the public realm. They say the high-court decision prohibits school officials, not students, from initiating prayer.

``As far as the Jones ruling goes, that speaks for itself,'' said Mark Troobnick, litigation counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice.

Schools now must provide equal access to students who want to organize and conduct Bible clubs and student prayer groups. These groups can meet before or after school and distribute literature during noninstructional time. The latest push is to allow students to engage in nonsectarian prayer during the school day.

Nonsectarian, nonproselytizing prayer would permit an abstract acknowledgment of a deity but not a direct reference to religious figures, ``such as Jesus or Muhammad,'' said Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way.

School districts, he said, would be responsible for setting guidelines for what constitutes nonsectarian prayer.

``Not only does that lead to a watered-down, generic version of what a prayer should be, but it's also unconstitutional since school officials would be directly involved in saying what kind of prayer is appropriate and what isn't,'' Mr. Mincberg said.

A crime-weary public

But prayer supporters believe they're onto something with their ``student-led, free speech'' approach, and that a crime-weary public backs their initiative.

The issue, said Mr. Troobnick, should not be a question of who has the right to initiate prayer, or what kind of prayer that should be, but of whether schools are allowing for religious observances.

Both sides say they want religion to flourish, yet both express concern that school prayer will turn into a political football. In the past, they say, politicians have distorted and trivialized the issue in their attempt to advance personal agendas and score points with their constituencies.

``I don't want to suggest that [politicians] don't seriously believe in school prayer, but the issue is clearly one that strikes a responsive chord in people and appeals to very strong beliefs,'' Mincberg said.

In Washington, D.C., Barry, the former mayor who served six months in prison for a drug-possession charge, is being criticized for promoting his bill to reinforce his image with the city's religious leaders. Barry was unavailable for comment, and his counsel declined to respond.

Critics also say there is no evidence that student prayer leads to any decline in crime. They say such statements will only give people a false sense of security.

``That's nonsense,'' said Troobnick. ``This [school-prayer advocacy] isn't about violence or political opportunism. This is about religion being squeezed out of society and the feeling that there's a loss in society because of that.''

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