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Trial Ends in Oklahoma's School-Prayer Case; Alabama, New Mexico Also Awaiting Rulings

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In one of several recent developments in church-state cases, arguments have been completed in a federal-court trial over prayer in the kindergarten-through-9th-grade school in Little Axe, Okla., a rural district southeast of Oklahoma City.

School-board members have allowed weekly prayer sessions at the school since February 1981.

In 1980, the Oklahoma legislature passed a law allowing voluntary prayer that said: "The Board of Education in each school district shall permit those students and teachers who wish to do so to participate in voluntary prayer."

The American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) of Oklahoma hopes the law will be struck down as a result of this case. And the attorney representing the school board--who is also the legislator who introduced the voluntary-prayer bill--wants the presiding judge to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's prohibition of organized school prayer. But the case will probably be decided on "very narrow grounds," said the state aclu's executive director, Shirley R. Barry.

During the trial, U.S. District Judge Ralph G. Thompson said, "Whether prayer should be allowed in public schools is not the question before this court," and he cautioned lawyers not to make his courtroom a forum for the issue.

The aclu brought the suit on behalf of Joann Bell, who was brought up in the Church of the Nazarene, and Lucille McCord, a member of the Church of Christ.

Ms. Bell has been the object of harrassment because of her participation in the suit. Last year, on the day the suit was filed, she was assaulted by a cafeteria worker at the school. She was subsequently awarded damages in a municipal-court suit stemming from that incident, said Ms. Barry.

'Moments of Silence'

Two other states--New Mexico and Alabama--involved in disputes over ''moments of silence" or school prayer are expecting court decisions soon. In the only such case yet decided, a federal district judge declared in October that a similar Tennessee law requiring a minute of silence was an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause.

The New Jersey Assembly voted last week to override Gov. Thomas H. Kean's veto of a bill that would require all public schools in New Jersey to start each class day with one minute of silence. A similar vote is needed in the Senate for the bill to become law. A vote there was scheduled for late last week.

One suit on the issue of state control of private, church-affiliated schools will soon be resolved, and one is just beginning.

A ruling in a Michigan case involving state regulatory powers is expected on Dec. 29.

At issue in the case, Sheridan Road Baptist Church v. Michigan, is whether the state's private-school regulations violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and parts of the Michigan constitution.

The plaintiffs, represented by the constitutional lawyer William B. Ball, say that state regulation inhib-its their free exercise of religion.

Michigan statutes and regulations place private schools under the supervision of the state superintendent of public instruction, require that teachers be state-certified, and mandate that such schools "teach subjects comparable to those taught in the public schools to children of corresponding age and grade."

And in Hawaii, a group of five churches, several ministers, and parents, has filed a suit in federal district court in Honolulu challenging a law requiring state licensing of all private schools.

The suit was filed on Nov. 19, a day after the state board of educa-tion ruled that all schools, including religiously affiliated schools, must be licensed by the state department of education.

The issue has already been dealt with in state court. The Hawaii State Supreme Court ruled earlier this fall that the current law does not violate constitutional protection of freedom of religion.

Recent Developments

There have also been recent developments in two other long-standing controversies involving schools and religion.

The Virginia Board of Education has given provisional one-year certi-fication to a biology program at the Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, is founder and chancellor of the school.

The vote will allow graduates of the program to teach in Virginia's public schools. The approval was granted with conditions, one being that a creationism course called "History of Life"--an advanced course that the aclu of Virginia said was "symptomatic" of the school's curricular tilt toward creationism--be removed from the required biology program.

Judy Goldberg, assistant director of the aclu of Virginia, said her group is not satisfied with the board's decision, but has not decided what its next step will be.

The state board's president, Thomas R. Watkins, said "certification by the board is not an approval of the purpose or mission statements of Liberty Baptist College."

And in Louisville, Neb., the Rev. Everett Sileven was back in jail as of late last week, marking the fourth time he has been jailed to serve a four-month sentence imposed on him last year for disobeying a court order to close his Christian school.

Mr. Sileven believes that the state has no right to regulate his school because it is part of his church.

Mr. Sileven's attorneys--from the Christian Law Association in Cleveland--have asked a U.S. district judge to order their client released from the Cass County jail.

Mr. Sileven has been sent to jail each time for contempt of a court order to close the school. He has been released each time after promising to close the school temporarily. So far, he has served about half of his four-month jail sentence.

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