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Supreme Court Reaffirms Ban on Prayer in Public Schools

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week continued its 20-year-old ban on sponsored prayer in public schools—even under a very permissive, voluntary state statute.

In a unanimous ruling not accompanied by a written opinion, the Court upheld an appellate court's ruling that a Louisiana law permitting voluntary prayer in public schools is unconstitutional.

The law, enacted in 1980, permitted school boards to set aside up to five minutes for prayer at the beginning of the school day. A student or teacher could volunteer to lead the prayer, and students who did not wish to participate could leave the room.

The first school board to act on the new law was in Jefferson Parish, located just outside New Orleans. "The others sat back to see what would happen to the 'lightning rod'," observed David Hamilton, a lawyer for the state department of education.

Under the Jefferson Parish board's policy, only students whose parents signed a written consent form could participate in a one-minute morning prayer session. But three parents of Jefferson Parish students sued, contending that the law and the local board's policy, even though they made prayer voluntary, promoted religion in violation of the First Amendment.

The law was upheld by a U.S. District Court Judge, but last August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck it down, holding that it was an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state.

School officials in at least one school district—Rapides Parish—said they will continue to set aside the prayer period unless the practice there is formally challenged.

And one of the Louisiana bill's co-sponsors reportedly has announced that the legislature will examine the Fifth Circuit ruling to determine whether another approach to school prayer might pass constitutional muster.

"They've been praying in school for a long time in the rural parishes, but nobody went in and sued them," Mr. Hamilton said. "It doesn't surprise me at all the way the Supreme Court ruled, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if the legislature tried it again."

Several states, particularly in the South, have enacted similar laws allowing "voluntary" prayer in the schools, according to Marion McGhehey, executive secretary of the National Organization on Legal Problems in Education.

"There's a large number of cases, and they all tend to go in the same direction once they get into the federal [judicial] system," Mr. McGhehey said. "The Supreme Court has never ruled against voluntary prayer. The point is that the Supreme Court has said you cannot use public-school facilities, paid for with taxes, for the advancement of religion."

He added: "They [legislators] just think it's sound politically, and they can run against the Supreme Court."

'Expensive Proposition'

Court battles over such laws and policies are "a very expensive proposition," Mr. McGhehey noted, with legal costs typically running to about $5,000 at the trial-court level and to at least $50,000 by the time a case reaches the Supreme Court.

School prayer is one of the so-called "social issues" pressed by conservative members of Congress, but deferred last year to give precedence to President Reagan's economic program.

Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, Republican of Tennessee, has predicted, however, that discussion of school prayer will come early in the Congressional session that began late last month.

The House already has passed an amendment prohibiting the use of federal funds to prevent programs of voluntary prayer in public schools. The bill—which observers say would have minimal impact because the government is rarely involved in challenges to prayer programs—has been stalled by a filibuster in the Senate.

Another measure, sponsored by Representative Philip M. Crane, Republican of Illinois, would strip the federal courts of jurisdiction in school-prayer cases.

"I don't think [the Supreme Court decision] affects the legislation," said David J. Allen, administrative assistant to Representative Crane. "I'm sure the Congressman's reaction would be that it points to the need for the legislation. They've gone ahead and exercised jurisdiction that they wouldn't have under the legislation."

The Crane bill is now bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee, "and probably will there remain," Mr. Allen said. To force the bill out of committee and onto the House floor, 218 members of the House would have to sign a "discharge petition" now being circulated. Mr. Allen said he did not know how many signatures are now on the petition, but added, "I don't think there are many on there."

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