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U.S. Judge Permits Student Prayer-Group Sessions in Pa. School

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A federal district judge in Pennsylvania has upheld the right of a group of Williamsport high-school students to form a prayer group and hold meetings during school hours.

Judge William J. Nealon, chief judge for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, ruled that to deny the students permission to hold their meetings during a period set aside for club meetings at the school violated their right to free religious speech.

Judge Nealon said the conclusion he reached in the case will not be confirmed until the Supreme Court clarifies the extent to which there can be an "open forum" for high-school students and the status of prayer in institutions when initiated by students independent of "outside influences."

The Court ruled in Widmar v. Vincent that a college evangelical group has the right to hold prayer meetings on the property of a public university, but has so far declined to hear cases involving the right of high-school students to do so.

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

There are several bills being considered in the Congress that would allow voluntary high-school reli-gious groups to meet on school property. (See Education Week, May 4, 1983.)

The Pennsylvania case began last year after a group of Williamsport High School students who had formed a prayer group asked the principal for "recognized status" as a school club, said a spokesman for the school.

The club is described as a nondenominational prayer group for students.

That status would have allowed the group to meet, under the guidance of a faculty adviser, during a half-hour period set aside each week on two mornings before school, said the spokesman.

The principal, and later the school board, denied the students' request, saying that the meetings would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The club, called Petros (which means "the rock'' in Greek), filed suit in federal court shortly thereafter.

Only Group Banned

Judge Nealon noted in his decision that the district had approved the formation of approximately 25 other student groups and that Petros was the only group that had been banned.

The school board has not yet decided whether it will appeal the decision. A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) of Greater Philadelphia said his group would file a friend-of-the-court brief if an appeal is filed.

If the district does not appeal, he said, the group might file a suit of its own to try to stop the meetings.

In related developments:

The aclu in Arkansas has filed a suit in federal district court charging that the Vilonia school district has allowed various religious practices in schools, and has restricted the number of school dances for religious reasons.

The Vilonia district is in Faulkner County, west of Little Rock.

According to Philip E. Kaplan, a lawyer working with the aclu, the district has in the past allowed Bible reading and student prayer in the classrooms; held assemblies with religious content; refused to allow the rental of school facilities for dances and restricted the number of school-sponsored dances "because of religious objections"; and prohibited editorials in the school newspaper that oppose religious practices in the school.

He said the suit was brought on behalf of a group of parents of students in the school who have documented the charges.

Superintendent James G. Hardage said the Vilonia district "categorically denies all the charges ... Our policy is that we don't promote religious activities."

The issue developed, he said, because the school board refused to allow dances in addition to the one that is now held each year.

"The suit says that the board voted not to have additional dances due to the religious orientation of the community," Mr. Hardage said. The real issue, he said, is whether a school board has the right to set policy for extracurricular activities in its district.

The suit was filed May 9 in a U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in Little Rock. A hearing is scheduled for June 29.

In Ohio, the aclu has sent a letter to the Loudonville-Perrysville school district threatening a lawsuit unless the district stops what it alleges are "pervasive" religious practices.

The group charges that the district has: given preference to teacher candidates who are graduates of fundamentalist Bible colleges; distributed Bibles in the 5th grade; allowed posting of scriptural passages in schools; allowed classroom prayers and scriptural readings; and held school assemblies featuring formal witnessing for Jesus and solicitations for religious donations.

A Nebraska state-court judge has ordered the Calvary Academy in Grand Island to close until it complies with state education laws requiring that private schools be approved by the state, have state-certified teachers, and follow state compulsory-attendance laws.

The school, housed in the basement of the Calvary Apostolic Church, has been in operation since August 1980.

According to Deputy County Attorney Kevin Broston, Hall County District Judge Richard DeBaker said the issues in the Calvary Academy case had already been decided in the case involving the Faith Christian School in Louisville, Neb.

In that case--the best known of several Nebraska cases involving state certification of private schools--a state court upheld the right of the state to regulate private schools.--ah

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