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Judge Blocks Prayer Law in Alabama; Challenges Pending in 2

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A federal district judge in Alabama last week issued an injunction barring the use of the state's new school-prayer law, but will not issue a final ruling on the law's constitutionality until he has heard arguments on the merits of the case.

If the judge, W. Brevard Hand, rules against the state, Gov. Forrest H. (Fob) James reportedly has said that he will try to take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is one of three state school-prayer challenges now in progress. Similar suits have been brought in Tennessee and New Mexico.

The Alabama law was passed by the 1982 legislature and signed in July by Governor James. It states: "From henceforth, any teacher or professor in any public educational institution within the State of Alabama, recognizing that the Lord God is one, at the beginning of any homeroom or any class, may pray, may lead willing students in prayer, or may lead willing students in the following prayer to God." A prayer, written by the Governor's son, Fob James 3d, follows.

Harassed and Ridiculed

Ishmael Jaffree, the Mobile, Ala., attorney who filed the suit against the state, had taken exception to the practice of prayer in the schools before the state law was passed. In a suit he brought in May against his children's three teachers, Mr. Jaffree said that his children were harassed and ridiculed for refusing to pray in school.

When the law was signed, he expanded his case and challenged the constitutionality of the new statute as well, according to an attorney for the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu).

Although the Supreme Court has ruled that organized prayer in the schools is unconstitutional, the practice is common in many school districts in Alabama, according to aclu officials.

In arguments before the judge several weeks ago, Mr. Jaffree's attorney, Ron Williams, argued that the law is in violation of the First Amendment. Represented by Fob James 3d, who is a lawyer, the state responded that no court has jurisdiction over such matters.

"In sanctioning public prayer by teachers and students, Alabama has disclaimed self-sufficiency and proclaimed dependency on God," the state's brief contends. "Indeed, Alabama's Prayer Law has honored God. Any person or power standing against this law interposes human government as an idol in the place of God. God Himself has warned against such idolatry," the brief says.

"Since when does the judicial arm of government assert jurisdiction over prayer to the Most High God?" the state asks.

In Tennessee, a challenge to a school-prayer law was heard on July 26 by U.S. District Judge L. Clure Morton. The law, passed by the 1982 legislature, sets aside one minute at the beginning of the school day for "meditation, or prayer, or personal beliefs." The suit charging that the law was unconstitutional was filed by the aclu of Tennessee.

In the oral arguments, aclu attorneys argued that the law is unconstitutional--a violation of First Amendment rights. The state, as expected, took the opposite position. Attorneys for both sides were to file briefs by Aug. 15.

Education officials hope that the decision will be handed down before school opens at the end of August. The judge, however, made no promises.

A similar suit has been filed over a New Mexico statute--passed by the state legislature last October--that allows a period of silence for "contemplation, meditation, or prayer" for no more than 60 seconds.

That suit, filed by the New Mexico aclu against the Las Cruces Public Schools--the only district to institute the prayer period thus far--is scheduled to be heard in U.S. District Court in October.

--sw and ah

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