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'Equal Access' Said Key in Debate on Religion in Schools

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Washington--The issue of religious groups' right to equal access to school facilities may take precedence over the issue of prayer in the schools during the next session of the 98th Congress, speakers at the annual conference of a coalition of education, religious, and civil-liberties groups suggested here last week.

The coalition, the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty (pearl), includes representatives from 28 groups, including most of the major education associations and the American Civil Liberties Union. Founded 11 years ago, the network aims to preserve the religious neutrality of the public schools.

Speakers at last week's meeting included representatives from affiliated groups, as well as Charles O'Malley, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell's executive assistant for private education. Mr. O'Malley outlined his office's efforts to improve the government's knowledge of and communication with nonpublic schools.

According to many of the speakers, the schools' "religious neutrality" is jeopardized by numerous factors, some emanating from the Congress and others from the courts.

The most immediate threat, several said, is an attempt by proponents of tuition tax credits for the parents of private-school students to bring a tax-credit measure to a vote in the Senate this week. (See story on page 1.) pearl is opposed to tuition tax credits, and many of its affiliated groups have testified against them in Congressional hearings.

In the next session of the current Congress, however, the so-called ''equal-access" question--which has been addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court for colleges but not for elementary and secondary schools, will move to center stage, predicted Patricia Dix, a legislative specialist for the National Education Association. "Next session, we're going to have a battle on our hands," Ms. Dix predicted.

At issue is whether schools that allow extracurricular activities to take place outside instructional hours should allow religious activities to be held on school premises on the same basis. Last May, in the first federal-court decision specifically on that question, U.S. District Judge William J. Nealon of the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that the Williamsport (Pa.) School District could not deny high-school students permission to hold meetings of a religious club during a period set aside for the meetings of student clubs. The local school board has appealed the decision. (See Education Week, May 25, 1983.)

Several bills that would mandate equal access are now pending in the Congress, Ms. Dix said. Senator Mark O. Hatfield, Republican of Oregon, has introduced S815, which would require equal access for religious groups in secondary schools. Senator Jeremiah Denton, Republican of Alabama, has introduced a similar bill, S1405, that would include elementary schools as well.

In the House, Representative Don Bonker, Democrat of Washington, introduced HR4172, which is similar to Senator Hatfield's bill. Repre-sentative Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, has introduced HR2732, which would require schools that permit extracurricular activities during noninstructional time to "make the same facilities available to religious groups," according to an aide. The aide emphasized, however, that the bill "does not require schools do anything."

Those who are concerned about church-state issues involving the public schools are divided in their views on the access question, Ms. Dix and others said. Some education groups--the nea, for example--oppose equal access because, Ms. Dix said, "We don't feel quite comfortable that you can separate everything out." She noted that, par-ticularly in elementary schools, pupils may feel pressure from peers and teachers to participate in religious activities that may run counter to their own beliefs or those of their parents.

The American Civil Liberties Union has also testified against the Hatfield bill, on the grounds that it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, according to Alan Reitman, the aclu's associate director.

Others, however, see the matter as a potentially necessary political tradeoff. "It's not that we love equal access and think it's great," said Kim Yelton, director of government relations for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "But it's come down now to a question of 'Do you want equal access, or do you want a school-prayer amendment?' There is considerable support for some kind of school prayer out there."

Recent court decisions--most notably, some made by the U.S. Supreme Court--also worry those who advocate religious neutrality in the public schools.

Robert Nixon, a lawyer for Liberty, a Seventh Day Adventist organization, said that although the Court is unlikely to make any radical changes favoring religion in the schools, it has handed down rulings that helped to break down the "wall" between church and state.

Mr. Nixon cited such recent decisions as Marsh v. Chambers, in which the Court held that Nebraska's state-appointed chaplaincy program was not unconstitutional. Similarly, the Court's recent ruling in Mueller v. Allen, which held constitutional a Minnesota law that allows tax deductions for expenses incurred in sending children to private or public schools, was a sign that the Court is growing increasingly willing to accept religious activities in the schools, Mr. Nixon asserted.

"The more conservative majority--more by evolution than by revolution--is quietly redefining the law of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses, laws many commentators thought fairly well settled by decisions over the last 40 years," Mr. Nixon said.

"We are concerned about a general move through various legislative devices to bring religion into the school setting," Mr. Reitman said. The aclu is not "anti-religion," he said, but holds that religious freedom is best secured by the strict separation of church and state.

Mr. Reitman said he concurred with the view that bold attempts to bring religion into the public schools--posting the Ten Commandments, for example--would not earn the support of the Court. "It's this middle area that we've been concerned about in recent decisions," he said.

Speakers at the pearl meeting also addressed the possible implications of the proposed federal constitutional convention, the stated purpose of which would be to develop an amendment that would require a balanced federal budget.

The coalition has taken no formal position on the question of whether such a convention should be held. But many of those attending the meeting expressed concern that a convention would provide an opportunity for proponents of anti-busing amendments, school-prayer amendments, and others to make controversial changes to the Constitution.

Thirty-four states must call for the convention before the Congress can convene it, and 32 have done so, Ms. Yelton said. In Maryland, opponents of the measure are working to withdraw the state's approval. But the proposal is likely to succeed in Kentucky, Ms. Yelton said, and proponents are hoping to have it placed on the presidential-primary ballot in California in June 1984.

"Our position is that the people have a right to exercise their will and call the convention, but it could be an 'open Sesame' to all sorts of radical changes," Mr. Reitman said.

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