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Panel Urged To Oppose Religious-Meeting Bill

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Washington--Members of a House subcommittee on education were advised last week to reject a measure that would deny federal financial aid to schools and colleges that prohibit student and faculty religious groups from meeting on school grounds.

The bill, H.R. 2732, "is so poorly structured that it will lead to chaos and confusion within all of the school districts of the United States and ultimately will result in bitter conflict," said Lee Boothby, legal counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"To spend valuable legislative time with the red herring of Bible teaching is, at a minimum, disappointing," added Frances A. Zwenig, director of public policy for People for the American Way, in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education. "I am afraid that this red herring would create unnecessary tensions when the last thing administrators, teachers, and students need today is to be thrust into sectarian religious strife."

Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of college students to use campus buildings for religious gatherings in a 1981 case, Widmar v. Vincent, lower federal courts have issued contradictory opinions with regard to the rights of elementary- and secondary-school students.

House Bill

The bill under consideration last week, which was introduced last April by Representative Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, is somewhat similar to a Senate bill, S.J. Res. 73, that would allow student religious groups to use school facilities before or after school hours and would guarantee their right to engage in silent meditation or prayer.

The Senate measure, however, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would have to be approved by two-thirds of the Congress and ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures. Representative Lott's bill could be approved by a simple majority vote in both houses.

The House bill, if approved, would penalize, by cutting off their federal assistance, educational institutions that did not allow such student gatherings. The Senate proposal contains no similar sanction.

"If this legislation were to pass, the judicial floodgates would open," Ms. Zwelig predicted. "We would see a new generation of case law on unconstitutional attempts to establish religion in the schools--all encouraged by the passage of H.R. 2732."

An example of the type of problem that schools would encounter, she said, was foreshadowed in Corvallis, Ore., recently.

School-prayer advocates came before the school board in that city and argued that a law enacted by the Congress last year designating 1983 as the Year of the Bible "meant that a study of the Holy Scripture should now be made a part of every public- and private-school curriculum," she said.

Ms. Zwelig suggested that the subcommittee require the bill's proponents to develop a "judicial impact statement" to evaluate the costs of the bill to the judicial system.

Mr. Boothby also suggested that the Congress delay action on any such legislation until the Supreme Court has an opportunity to rule on the issue.

At present, he said, two cases appear destined for review by the Court. In the first case, Bell v. Little Axe Independent School District, a federal district judge in Oklahoma ruled on May 11 that schools could deny access to student religious groups. In the second, Bender v. Williamsport Area School District, a federal district judge in Pennsylvania ruled exactly the opposite a day later.

"Until [the Supreme Court review] is accomplished, it is premature for Congress to interpose its will on local school boards,' he said. "It is a prime example of a situation where the federal government should stay out of local affairs"

If the bill is passed, Mr. Boothby added, school boards would face the dilemma of having to carry out policies that they believe violate the mandates of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment which prohibits the government establishment of religion or of having to disobey the law.

"They would run the risk of violating federal law and its attendant penalty of the loss of federal financial assistance," he said. "They would be subject to federal action from plaintiffs no matter which position they would take."

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