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School Prayer Just a Start for Some Christian Activists : Religion: Conservatives say they need a constitutional amendment protecting their right to expressions of faith.

December 25, 1994|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Advocates of religious rights quickly tick off the examples.

In St. Louis, "a fourth-grader was put in detention three times for whispering a prayer before eating his meal," one said. Another cited a Pennsylvania case in which a "student's lunch box was confiscated because it included a note that said: 'Jesus loves you.' "

A third recounted the story of an Indiana first-grader who was told he could not read a Bible in school, while an 11-year-old in Virginia was told a week ago that he could not recite a Christmas poem because it made reference to Jesus.

"The intolerance for religion in this country has reached shocking levels," said John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a religious-liberties legal group based in Charlottesville, Va.

"These are not isolated examples," said Gary Bauer, a former Ronald Reagan Administration adviser who heads the Family Research Council. The American Civil Liberties Union "has convinced educators that they cannot allow any religious expression at school," he said.

These complaints of hostility toward religion have circulated widely in conservative and Christian evangelical groups in recent years. Now they are fueling a drive among some activists to draft a broad amendment to the Constitution that would go beyond voluntary school prayer.

The proposal would protect an individual's right to "religious expression," whether it is the high school student who sports a T-shirt that says "Jesus Saves" or the private group that wants to erect a creche in the public square.

"We want to go beyond just the first 30 seconds of the (school) day," said Steven McFarland, legal director for the Christian Legal Society. "I'm persuaded a constitutional amendment could solve a lot of these problems, and it would get broad, grass-roots support."

But other religious-rights advocates strongly dispute the need for something as drastic as a constitutional amendment.

"Usually, these cases involve a misunderstanding. They can be cleared up with a quick letter," said J. Brent Walker, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, who leads a coalition of religious groups that oppose a prayer amendment.

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For example, the Indiana first-grader who was told that he could not bring his Bible to school got an apology shortly after a religious-liberties law firm threatened to sue over the issue.

Nonetheless, the continuing dispute shows the amount of confusion and misinterpretation that envelops school prayer--even about what is legal and what is not--and how much more complicated the issue is than generally acknowledged.

Just six weeks ago, many religious-rights activists said they opposed an initial version of a school prayer amendment offered by incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) because it gave local officials authority to direct a prayer.

"I don't know any religious advocacy group which wants to overrule Engel vs. Vitale," McFarland said, referring to the original 1962 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed official school prayers. "The government has an obligation to keep religious indoctrination out of the classroom."

However, these same activists say they believe that students' rights to express their religious faith is not now protected adequately.

"These school incidents are fueling the fire," said Jay Sekulow, counsel for Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.

Three weeks ago, Gingrich, in a television appearance, cited the St. Louis case as evidence that "it's illegal to pray," even privately, in schools today.

Sekulow cited a recent example of Texas high school students who were told that they could advertise their after-school Bible club only if they dropped any mention of God or Jesus.

"That's why I'd call it a religious-liberties amendment. We need to make an affirmative statement that goes beyond prayer," Sekulow said.

These Christian legal advocates have worked on several versions of a proposed constitutional amendment that they plan to unveil early next year. Republican leaders said they plan to take up the school prayer issue later in the year.

For their part, lawyers for traditionally liberal groups said they believe that these school incidents have been overblown or exaggerated.

Some, such as the St. Louis case, never happened as reported, they said. They also firmly oppose a constitutional amendment on religion as unwise and unnecessary.

But surprisingly, they also said they agree in part with one major contention of conservative activists: that many school principals and teachers believe--wrongly--that any sign of religion in a public school violates the law.

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Indeed, a lawyer for the American Jewish Congress in New York is working with counterparts in the Christian legal movement to draw up a list of permissible religious activities in the public schools.

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