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Bell Favors Church Groups' School Use

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Washington--Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell last week gave strong Administration support to the concept of "equal-access" legislation that would permit voluntary religious activity on public-school property.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Bell said, "The equal-access legislation introduced in both houses of Congress would merely put voluntary religious activity on an equal footing with other extracurricular activities permitted on public-school premises."

"If a public school allows students to meet before or after school to discuss or engage in politics, social activism, or athletics," Mr. Bell said, "why should the rule change just because the students happen to be religious?"

Mr. Bell said that the equal-access concept--which is addressed in four bills being considered in Congress--would "simply ensure that the public schools ... abide by the constitutional principle in Widmar v. Vincent."

The bills vary in their details (al-though three are nearly identical), but they are all intended to make it possible for voluntary student religious groups to meet on public-school property.

One bill applies only to public secondary schools, while another applies to all public schools. One would withhold federal education funds from state and local education agencies that do not allow religious meetings, while one would make it illegal to prohibit these meetings in public high schools.

In the case that Mr. Bell cited during his testimony, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1981 that a campus evangelical group in Missouri had the right to hold prayer meetings on a public university's property.

However, the Court said in a footnote to its majority opinion that university students, who are "less impressionable than younger students," would not infer official support for religion from such a policy.

So far, the Court has declined opportunities to extend its Widmar reasoning to secondary schools.

In January, for example, the Court declined to hear a case involv-ing the right of the Lubbock, Tex., school board to allow students to hold voluntary religious meetings on school property before or after school.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had previously ruled that this policy was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

Two of the equal-access bills currently being considered in Congress were introduced by Senator Jeremiah Denton, Republican of Alabama, who at last week's hearing called the equal-access issue "the ultimate question of whether or not students and teachers have the right to express religious ideas and beliefs in public schools."

His bill, S1059, known as 'the equal access act," would deny federal education funds to state or local education agencies that forbid students or school employees from holding sessions of "voluntary prayer, religious discussion or silent meditation" on school premises before or after school hours.

According to a spokesman for Senator Denton, an identical bill, S425, is pending in the Labor and Human Resources committee.

Senator Mark O. Hatfield, Republican of Oregon, has introduced S815,''the religious speech protection act," that would provide a judicial remedy for students who are denied "free religious speech."

Unlawful to Discriminate

The bill makes it unlawful for "a public secondary school receiving federal assistance ... to discriminate against any meeting of students on the basis of the religious content of the speech."

The bill has a number of cosponsors in the Senate. Senator Hatfield was one of 24 Senators who filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the Lubbock case.

Fourth Measure Introduced

A fourth measure, HR2732, introduced late last month, is "almost identical" to Senator Denton's bill, said a spokesman for Representative Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi. Representative Lott is one of four House sponsors of the bill.

Senator Denton said during last week's hearing that supporters of the bills "in no way want to diminish chances of passage of the constitutional amendment allowing school prayer" by introducing this legislation.

Gary Bauer, deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation in the Education Department, said the Administration does not view the bills as a threat to its school-prayer proposal, but considers them part of a "dual approach" to permitting religious activity in schools.

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