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School Prayer Issue Returns to Courtrooms

July 31, 1993|From Associated Press

The issue of prayer in public schools, which seemed to have been resolved by a Supreme Court ruling last year, is surfacing again with new challenges to the law.

The 5-4 Supreme Court decision banned an invocation and benediction by a rabbi at a Providence, R.I., junior high schoool. But court-recognized exceptions have arisen to that apparently closed case and the new factors are expected to cause strains, reconsideration and court battles across the country.

"It's an issue in a lot of places, and litigation over it is going to be brewing over the next year, maybe several years," said Bradley P. Jacob, executive director of the Christian Legal Society, based in Annandale, Va.

The threat of litigation is going to scare a lot of school districts into prohibiting such prayer, he said, but others will "take a more courageous decision."

They will say, "We're going to permit prayer that is student-led and initiated, the way the Constitution allows," he said. The American Civil Liberties Union has launched suits to prevent it.

The issue was reopened when the Supreme Court in June let stand a decision by a federal appeals court in Texas that approved graduation prayers if decided on and carried out by students.

That was the situation at Clear Creek Independent School District near Houston, to which the court gave its approval.

The approach there differed from the one in last year's Rhode Island case, in which school officials directed and arranged for the prayer, chose the clergy for it and regulated the content.

Both before and after the Supreme Court forbade such officially orchestrated prayers, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans held that the student-planned and -led prayers were constitutional.

The Supreme Court declined to review that twice-affirmed decision. Church-state specialists say that leaving it in place could signify agreement, but might be for other reasons.

It "would seem to leave open to school districts all over the country to let students have prayers as long as school officials are kept out of the loop," Jacob said.

While church officials differed about the implications, they praised two other June actions by the high court as strengthening rights of religious speech and association.

The court struck down a policy by the Center Moriches School District in Suffolk County, N.Y., that prohibited religious use of its facilities after hours while permitting use for a variety of other purposes and by other groups.

Siding with Lamb's Chapel, an evangelical church that challenged the policy, the court called it discrimination against religion. A school district cannot bar use of its facilities for discussing religious aspects of a topic while permitting discussion of its non-religious aspects, it said.

The court also refused to hear an attempt to overturn an Illinois law providing for public school recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the phrase "one nation, under God."

An atheist leader claimed that the law violated free exercise of religion by requiring students to participate, and said the pledge tended to establish religion. However, an appeals court held that the law was not coercive, and students were free not to participate.

With the Clear Creek decision left in force, several lawsuits landed in courts across the country, with many others likely in months ahead.

Louden County, Va., school officials, for example, approved students deciding about prayer and carrying it out. But the ACLU got an injunction against it. An appeals court threw out the injunction, returning the case for trial, expected to take place within a few months.

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