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Administration Details Effects of Prayer Amendment

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If the constitutional amendment now pending in the Senate to return prayer to the public schools were to become law, school officials would be permitted either to lead students in prayer or to offer a moment for silent meditation, a Reagan Administration official said last week.

Edward C. Schmults, the deputy attorney general, outlined the practical application of permitting prayer in public schools in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering the Administration-supported amendment proposal.

School prayer also was debated on the Senate floor last week, as Senator Jesse A. Helms, Republican of North Carolina, sought passage of a measure that would withdraw the Supreme Court from jurisdiction over court cases involving prayer in the schools.

The Senator lost a test vote on Wednesday, when the Senate defeated, by a vote of 59 to 38, Senator Helms's attempt to prevent liberal Senators from watering down his proposal. The vote came on a proposal by Republican Senator Lowell P. Weicker of Connecticut that reaffirmed the authority of the federal courts to enforce the Constitution. Senate debate on the Helms proposal was expected to continue throughout the week.

School board-sanctioned prayer has been outlawed in the public schools since 1962, when the Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale, struck down a New York state law that required students to recite a state-approved ecumenical prayer.

Speculation on Amendment

Much speculation had surrounded the Administration's constitutional amendment proposal since President Reagan unveiled the measure last May. The Administration has repeatedly emphasized that the amendment would permit "voluntary" prayer only--a statement that has raised questions about the responsibilities of school officials in implementing the law.

According to Mr. Schmults, the amendment "would not require school authorities to allow or participate in prayer, but would permit them to do so if desired. Group prayers could be led by teachers or students. Alternatively, if the school authorities decided not to take part in a group prayer, they would be free to accommodate the students' interest in individual or group prayer by permitting, for example, prayer meetings outside of class hours. ...

"If the school authorities choose to participate in a group prayer,'' he continued, "the selection of the particular prayer--subject, of course, to the right of those not wishing to participate not to do so--would be left to the judgment of local communities, based on a consideration of such factors as the desires of parents, students, and teachers, and other community interests consistent with applicable state law."

The amendment, which must pass both chambers of the Congress and be ratified by 38 states to become law, declares simply that "Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any state to participate in prayer."

Mr. Schmults said the effect of the amendment would be to "restore the practice maintained throughout most of this nation's history, in which the determination of the appropriate circumstances of prayer was made by state and local authorities."

During the hearing, Representative Stephen L. Neal, Democrat of North Carolina, testified that he supported the idea of prayer in the schools, but only in the form of a silent period of meditation. "I don't think it should be up to the school systems as to how students fill those periods of silence," he said.

Senator John P. East, Republican of North Carolina, argued that "it is not clear" whether a meditation period would be found legal under current law. "The lower federal courts are already crowding into this area. An amendment would clear up this matter and prevent the courts from entering further into this area," he said.

Representative Neal responded that the proposed amendment could permit school officials to approve a prayer for use in the schools, an action he said he was opposed to. "Schoolteachers, school administrators have no training in writing prayers," he said.

But the Senator said he believed that a constitutional amendment was necessary to alleviate what he termed "the chilling effect" on school officials, who eliminated even silent periods of meditation in light of the Supreme Court's ruling.

Senator East contended that only by clarifying the right of school or state officials to sanction prayer--either silent meditation or spoken prayer led by teachers or students--could the Congress prevent the establishment of "state-enforced secular humanism," which he said would mean that "you cannot have any reference to theism in the schools at all."

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