WASHINGTON — Politically touchy social issues generally divide the 1988 presidential candidates along party lines, but among Democrats, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. has taken a solo position on school prayer that could help him in the crucial Super Tuesday primaries in the South next March.
Gore, who also has struck a more conservative stance than his rivals on defense and foreign policy, advocates allowing public school officials to set aside a "moment of silence for individual prayer or contemplation."
In response to a Times questionnaire on key social issues, Gore was the only one of the six declared Democratic candidates to call for testing Supreme Court rulings against state-sponsored prayers and periods devoted to "voluntary prayer and meditation."
Gore's position was similar to that of the six Republican presidential hopefuls, who championed official periods of "voluntary prayer" or "silence."
The Supreme Court is considering whether a "moment of silence" law in New Jersey violates the Constitution's ban on promoting religion. In 1984, the court threw out an Alabama law calling for a daily period set aside for "voluntary prayer and meditation," but several justices said they would look favorably on a non-religious state law calling for a daily moment of silence.
Gore's positions on abortion and capital punishment also distinguished him from most of the other Democrats in The Times' survey and could aid him in his native South, which is more conservative than the rest of the nation on social issues.
On the other hand, all the GOP contenders substantially agreed with each other on issues in the questionnaire. Besides school prayer, the issues were abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, pornography and tuition tax credits.
Only Kansas Sen. Bob Dole among Republicans stood out somewhat on one issue: whether the government should require employers to use affirmative action plans to improve the condition of women and members of minority groups in the work force.
Dole alone said specifically that he supports current policy "requiring federal contractors to take affirmative action in hiring and promoting women and minorities." But, echoing his rivals, he opposed the use of rigid numerical quotas, which go beyond currently administered goals and timetables.
Mindful of the broad ideological range among Democratic voters, Gore sought to temper his call for an officially scheduled moment of silence in public classrooms by insisting that he opposes "government-run prayer."
"I am unwilling to allow the government to take over responsibility for telling our children how to pray, how to worship and what doctrine to incorporate into religious services," he said.
However, Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) contended that "even requiring a moment of silence where children can silently pray or meditate isolates those children for whom silent prayer is not a part of their religion or heritage."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, another Democratic candidate, asserted that "there is nothing in the Constitution to prevent our children from praying before, after or during school, in their free time."
Similarly, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said that "current law allows children to pray. . . . We don't need formal worship exercises in school to enable children to pray."
The two remaining Democrats, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, both simply responded "no" to the question: "Do you believe local public school officials should be allowed to mandate spoken prayers to be recited by students in classrooms?"
In the Republican contingent, Vice President George Bush, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, former television evangelist Pat Robertson and Dole all advocated a period for voluntary prayer, with Dole urging that it be implemented in a constitutional amendment.
Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. called for an equivalent "period of silence." Kemp combined the two phrases, saying: "I support voluntary prayer . . . through a moment of silence."
Addressing one of the most explosive social issues, all six Democratic contenders supported the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion, while five Republicans opposed the ruling and the sixth, Haig, said he opposes the abortion procedure except when the mother's life is in danger.
However, on another important facet of the issue, Gore and Gephardt broke away from fellow Democrats and joined the Republicans in opposing federal funding of abortions for nearly all low-income women.
Aid for Family Planning
Babbitt, apparently recognizing that Congress is unlikely to drop its ban on such funding any time soon, proposed an alternative--more subsidies for family planning--that he said "would free enough resources in the private charitable sector to ensure that every woman has the means to end a pregnancy if she so chooses."