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Congress Turns to 'Equal Access' After Prayer Vote

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Washington--Support for legislation guaranteeing the right of student religious groups to meet on school grounds gained momentum last week following the Senate's resounding defeat of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed vocal, organized prayer in public schools.

According to lobbyists and Congressional staff members, debate on the so-called "equal-access" bill, which enjoys widespread bipartisan support, could begin on the floor of the Senate before the end of next month and shortly thereafter in the House.

"It's an absolute winner," said one of the chief pro-prayer lobbyists. "I'd be surprised if we get fewer than 75 votes for it in the Senate."

Shortly after the Senate killed the school-prayer amendment last Tuesday by a 55-to-44 vote, President Reagan urged the chamber to begin consideration of S 1059, an equal-access bill sponsored by Senator Jeremiah Denton, Republican of Alabama. The Senate Judiciary Committee had approved the measure by a 12-to-4 vote on Feb. 22.

Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr., Republican of Tennessee and one of the chief proponents of the prayer amendment, announced last week that he would schedule the Denton bill for debate as soon as he could. He added that it "will be given the most careful and full consideration."

And during a press conference immediately after the vote on the school-prayer amendment, its main opponent, Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Republican of Connecticut, said that he "might very well" vote for an equal-access bill.

House aides, meanwhile, reported last week that the chairman of the chamber's Education and Labor Committee plans to hold hearings on and hopes to mark up a House version of the equal-access measure "very soon."

Numerous Hearings

Congressional committees have held numerous hearings during the past two years on decisions by some high-school officials to prevent student religious groups from meeting on school grounds. During those hearings, it was often pointed out that federal courts have handed down conflicting opinions on the legality of such actions.

For example, in Bell v. Little Axe Independent School District, a federal district judge in Oklahoma ruled last May 11 that high-school officials could bar student-led prayer meetings on school property. A day earlier, in Bender v. Williamsport Area School District, a federal district judge in Pennsylvania reached the opposite conclusion. Both cases have been appealed and are pending in federal circuit courts.

In a 1981 ruling that applied only to colleges, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Widmar v. Vincent that postsecondary institutions cannot deny student religious groups access to school grounds if such access is granted to secular groups.

Support For Compromise

A number of Senate aides said last week that a compromise constitutional amendment allowing silent prayer and containing an equal-access provision could have garnered the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

A vote on the compromise, however, was rejected by both supporters and opponents of school prayer. (See Education Week, Feb. 21, 1984.) But in explaining their rejection of the compromise, most senators referred to their objections to the prayer section of the amendment and not to the proposal's equal-access provision.

Senator's Denton's proposal does not appear to have unqualified support in the Congress, however. Two alternative, almost identical versions, S 815 and HR 4996, have been introduced in the Senate by Senator Mark O. Hatfield, Republican of Oregon, and in the House by Representative Don Bonker, Democrat of Washington.

Grade-Level Differences

The primary difference between the Hatfield-Bonker and Denton proposals is that the first applies only to high-school students and the second covers students from kindergarten through grade 12.

"A good number of senators who voted against the President's [school-prayer] amendment are sponsors of [the Hatfield] bill," noted one Senate aide. "It's reasonable to assume that, when it comes up for a vote, it should pass by even a larger margin than the vote we saw this week."

The aide said the Senator will most likely attempt to offer his version of the measure as a substitute for Senator Denton's version when it reaches the Senate floor.

In the House, meanwhile, supporters of equal-access legislation are considering tactics to ensure that the Bonker bill does not become bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee.

According to one House aide, the Bonker version was drafted in a form that differed from the Hatfield version in order to bypass the judiciary panel. The measure has been referred to the House Education and Labor Committee, which is chaired by Representative Carl D. Perkins, Democrat of Kentucky and a supporter of the equal-access concept.

"Mr. Perkins has indicated that he wants one more day of hearings on our bill before going to markup," the aide said. "Most of the Democrats on the committee are on the fence, but we think all of the Republicans would vote for it."

If the Hatfield and Bonker versions of the bill are passed, the aide continued, the House appointees to the subsequent conference committee would most likely agree to adopt the Hatfield language.

Support Is Broader

The degree of support enjoyed by the equal-access concept was typified by the comments last week of lobbyists who were at loggerheads over the school-prayer issue just days earlier.

A representative of Americans United For Separation of Church and State, which lobbied against the proposed school-prayer amendment, said her organization would support the Hatfield-Bonker equal-access measure.

"It's a clean version that we can support," explained Kim Yelton, director of governmental relations for the group.

"Our next step is to move on equal access as rapidly as we can" said Gary L. Jarmin, legislative director6of Christian Voice, a conservative religious organization which lobbied extensively in favor of the President's proposal. "A lot of people who voted against prayer will want to use a vote for equal access as a way to get off the hook. I'd be surprised if we have even one vote against it."

Setback For Reagan

The defeat of the school-prayer amendment last week was viewed by many observers as a major setback for the President, who has stated repeatedly that "God should never have been expelled from our classrooms.''

The Senate's rejection of the proposal came about four months after its rejection of Administration-backed legislation proposing tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 23, 1983.) The two concepts have been widely viewed as the cornerstone of the President's education agenda.

"This has been an important debate, revealing the extent to which the freedom of religious speech has been abridged in our nation's public schools," Mr. Reagan said after the vote. "We have suffered a setback, but we have not been defeated. Our struggle will go on."

"[W]e have just begun to fight," echoed Senator Jesse A. Helms, Republican of North Carolina. "There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there is more than one way for Congress to provide a check on arrogant Supreme Court justices who routinely distort the Constitution to suit their own notions of public policy."

Senator Helms is the sponsor of a bill, S784, that would strip federal courts of jurisdiction in school-prayer cases. According to several Congressional observers, even if the bill is passed in the Senate, it would face a difficult fight in the House.

Following the prayer vote, Senator Weicker of Connecticut, the amendment's main adversary, commented, "The Constitution is safe for at least one more day."

"I had something the President didn't have--a good product, the First Amendment," he said of the vote. "This is not a political issue. Indeed, if anyone makes it so, I hope it will be the cause of their defeat, Republican or Democrat."

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