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Advocates Ask School-Prayer Debate

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Washington--The White House and its supporters in the Congress reportedly have launched an offensive aimed at beginning debate in the Senate as early as this week on a constitutional amendment allowing voluntary prayer in public schools.

During a nationally televised press conference last week, President Reagan noted that the Senate was scheduled to begin deliberations on the sensitive issue "shortly."

He then urged the Senate "to reaffirm that voluntary prayer in schools is indeed a basic right of our people" and added that he hopes the Democratic-controlled House will follow suit.

In his Jan. 25 State of the Union address, Mr. Reagan criticized the Congress for beginning each of its daily sessions with prayer led by a clergyman while denying that opportunity to students in public schools.

Last July, the Senate Judiciary Committee, after failing to reach an agreement on the proper wording for a constitutional amendment on prayer, reported two competing versions to the full chamber. (See Education Week, July 27, 1983.)

The first, supported by the President and a number of fundamentalist Christian groups, simply states that "individual or group prayer in public schools" cannot be prohibited.

The second, drafted by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, would allow organized silent prayer or meditation in public schools and would guarantee the right of student religious groups to hold meetings before or after classes on school property on the same basis as other student organizations.

A third alternative, introduced in the Senate by Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr., Republican of Tennessee, is likely to be debated on the Senate floor along with these alternatives. Senator Baker's proposed amendment states that nothing in the Constitution "shall abridge the right of persons lawfully assembled" in any public building to participate in voluntary prayer.

To be adopted, a constitutional amendment must win a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Congress and then must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.--tm

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