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Federal Judge Rejects Tennessee Law on Prayer in Schools

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Nashville, Tenn.--A federal district judge here has ruled unconstitutional a state law requiring a minute of silence at the beginning of each school day "for meditation or prayer or personal beliefs."

U.S. District Judge L. Clure Morton ruled on Oct. 7 that the law violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and enjoined officals from further enforcement of the statute. The judge based his conclusion largely on legislative debate preceding the passage of the bill last spring.

Similar cases are pending in Alabama and New Mexico, and a Massachusetts judge recently advised the state legislature that a proposed prayer bill there was unconstitutional. In Alabama, a federal judge issued an injunction this summer ordering schools not to follow the law until a trial has been held on its constitutionality. The trial is set for early November. In New Mexico, a hearing on the school-prayer case is scheduled for this week.

'Clear and Unambiguous'

Tennessee Attorney General William Leech said on Oct. 12 that the state will appeal the decision because "it is not appropriate to discern legislative intent by what a particular senator says. Intent is best construed by reading the bill. We feel it is clear and unambiguous."

Mr. Leech said his office has advised the Tennessee Department of Education that Judge Morton's order was effective the day it was issued and that the law "cannot be implemented." However, Judge Morton's order applies only to the contested law, Mr. Leech said, "and would not automatically preclude local school systems from adhering to policies or practices which are independent from said statute."

The Attorney General advised local systems to consult "with their local legal counsel." Lionel Barrett Jr., the attorney who argued successfully against the law for the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu), said, "We will see what happens in the various school systems, but I assume everyone is acting in good faith."

In his 16-page opinion, Judge Morton said, "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the legislative purpose was advancement of religious exercises in the classroom."

The judge said that "at the very best" the law is "on its face ambiguous." However, the legislative debate removes any ambiguity, he wrote, noting that an amendment was proposed that would have removed any reference in the law to "prayer" and left the reference to "meditation." That amendment was defeated by a vote of 27 to 5.

"The record of debate upon this statute is devastating to the defendants' position," Judge Morton wrote. "The overwhelming intent among legislators supporting the bill, including the sponsors, was to estab-lish prayer as a daily fixture in the public schoolrooms of Tennessee."

"Even if much that was said can be passed off as political rhetoric, it is rhetoric clearly inconsistent with standards set and placed by the constitution, and therefore reflects upon an inappropriate purpose," he continued.

"There were indications that certain legislators have concluded that prayer should be a routine part of the school day because a majority of the constituents support such a practice," the judge wrote.

Judge Morton then quoted from the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, which held that "the very purpose of the Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy."

"If this is not the case," wrote the judge, "by leaving political favor and majority sentiment to carry the day on all issues we have no need for a constitution at all, and we might determine our most basic rights by consulting the latest Gallup Poll."

Judge Morton said efforts to make the law constitutionally acceptable by modifying the language failed. The reference to "personal belief'' had been added on the advice of the attorney general's office.

"But a mere cursory reading of the legislative history discloses that the purpose for which the statute was enacted remained constant--the legislature sought to set aside a time for daily religious exercises in public schools," the judge wrote.

In his decision, he also noted that "defendants point out that prayer has never been prohibited in public schools and that those who generally state that prayer is prohibited do so incorrectly. This statement is obviously correct..."

The judge said the state was also "supported" by case law in arguing that "the constitution does not require an anti-religious government."

These "realities under the Free Exercise clause are not determinative of the issues in this case, however," the judge wrote. In viewing the law in relation to the Establishment Clause, he questioned whether it "transcends the bounds of neutrality."

Tennessee aclu officials described the decision as setting a precedent for so-called "silent moment" laws and said they will fight the appeal.

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