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Many States Allow Prayer, Silent Meditation

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The constitutionality of laws requiring or allowing prayer or periods of silence in schools continues to be debated in legislatures and courts. But some opponents of such practices believe they will continue regardless of what legislatures or courts do.

Kentucky, for example, has no law allowing prayer or meditation, "but what is going on in the state is another matter," said Suzanne K. Post, director of the Kentucky Civil Liberties Union.

"As a matter of law, the prayer portion has been taken off the books," said David A. Hamilton, a lawyer for the state department of education in Louisiana, "as a practical matter, I'm sure we could go into the woods of Louisiana and find school prayer."

"There's tons of local activity," said Jann H. Lewis, executive director of the Missisippi Civil Liberties Union. "We get a complaint almost every day," she said.

Much school prayer goes unreported, she said, because no one in the community objects to it, or because "often, parents don't say anything about it because they don't want to have their child harrassed in school or put in the position of going to court."

Following are some of the existing state laws:

Alabama has three laws relating to school prayer, according to Mary B. Weidler, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of Alabama.

The first, passed in 1978, permits a "period of silence" for meditation or voluntary prayer in schools through the 6th grade. In 1981, that law was extended to all grades, and in 1982, another voluntary law, containing a suggested prayer, was passed. This law applies to both schools and state colleges.

A decision in a suit against the laws is expected soon.

Louisiana has a state law permitting a "brief time of silent meditation," not to exceed five minutes, at the beginning of each school day.

This law, passed in 1976, was amended in 1980 to allow a teacher or student to "volunteer to offer a prayer," and to allow students who objected to the prayer not to participate.

In a court challenge, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the voluntary-prayer portion was unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 1981.

Massachusetts for years has had a law that allows a moment of silence for meditation or prayer, said John W. Roberts, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

That law was challenged in federal court in 1976 and found to be constitutional.

The state legislature subsequently passed a bill allowing voluntary prayer at the beginning of each school day, a law found unconstitutional by the state supreme court in 1980. The moment of silence is still in effect.

Mississippi has a little-known voluntary school-prayer law that was challenged as part of a larger suit against the Rankin County school system for practicing religion in schools, said Ms. Lewis.

A federal judge in Jackson ruled against the Rankin County system but has not yet dealt with the voluntary-prayer law, Ms. Lewis said.

A bill asking for a mandatory one-minute period of silence to permit "meditation, silent prayer, or other private reflection" has been filed in the Mississippi legislature.

Tennessee's law requiring a minute of silence was declared unconstitutional by a federal district judge in October. The state has not yet filed an appeal of that decision, but may, according to a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) of Tennessee.

Oklahoma has a law allowing voluntary prayer that is the object of a lawsuit.

New Mexico's law, which allows local school boards to authorize a one-minute period of silence for "contemplation, meditation, or prayer," is the subject of a lawsuit that should be decided soon.

Arizona has a law, requiring a minute of silent meditation at the beginning of each class day, which has as yet not been challenged.

Maine has a law, passed in 1981 but apparently rarely used, that allows school districts to require a period of silence for "reflection or meditation," according to a spokesman in the state department of education.

Pennsylvania has a law authorizing local school districts to have a moment of silence if they choose, "but it's rarely ever used," said Barry S. Steinhardt, executive director of the aclu of Greater Philadelphia.

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