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Reagan Backs Bill Limiting Courts In Prayer Suits

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Washington--President Reagan said last week that he would not oppose a controversial measure now before the Senate that would strip federal courts of jurisdiction over cases involving prayer in public schools. The President took that stance despite warnings from the Justice Department earlier this year that such legislation might be unconstitutional.

The school-prayer proposal, sponsored by Senator Jesse A. Helms, Republican of North Carolina, was included as an amendment to a bill now before the Senate that would allow the federal government to increase the limit on the national debt. The Senate is expected to vote on the debt-ceiling bill sometime this month.

Last May, Attorney General William French Smith said that an identical school-prayer measure, S1742, introduced in the Senate by Senator Helms earlier this year, "raised fundamental and difficult" constitutional questions because, if passed, it would probably impinge on the "core functions" of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite those misgivings, Mr. Smith said that he "responsibly could, and if called upon to do so, would" defend the bill's constitutionality if it were passed by the Congress.

C. Anson Franklin, a White House spokesman, said last week that the President acknowledged the Justice Department's reservations about the bill, but still feels that it is a proper statutory approach to the school-prayer issue. Mr. Reagan, he continued, also believes that the issue of its constitutionality can be worked out by the courts.

The Administration has been criticized by some supporters both inside and outside of government for not moving quickly enough on such "social issues" as school prayer and abortion.

Apparently in response to the criticism, Mr. Reagan earlier this year sent legislation to the Congress proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow organized prayer in public schools. That bill, SJ Res 199, is now the subject of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The President, according to Mr. Franklin, continues to support that measure.--tm

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