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Equal-Access Bill Supported, Opposed in House Panel Hearing

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Washington--The chairman of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights told members of a House education panel last week that he has "grave reservations" about a bill that would guarantee the right of student religious groups to hold meetings on school grounds.

The measure, said Representative Don Edwards, Democrat of California, is both "unnecessary and unwise" because students already have the right to pray privately whenever and wherever they want and because it would exacerbate "the bitter and divisive debate" over prayer in public schools.

"Having lost the prayer amendment in the Senate, its proponents are attempting to come in through the back door, using the soothing and apparently neutral language of 'equal access,"' Representative Edwards told the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education. "Make no mistake--this is not an equal-access bill."

Remark Contested

Representative Edwards' remark, however, was contested by a number of proponents of the equal-access concept, which has picked up support since the Senate's defeat last month of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed vocal, organized prayer in public schools. (See Education Week, March 28, 1984.)

The equal-access bill, HR 4996, "provides a constitutionally sound and evenhanded means of addressing the question of religion in public schools," said the measure's chief sponsor, Representative Don Bonker, Democrat of Washington.

Preventing high-school students from meeting voluntarily for religious purposes while allowing oth-ers to hold secular meetings is "a double standard inconsistent with the principles of free speech and government neutrality toward religion," he added.

Religious Liberty

According to Senator Mark O. Hatfield, Republican of Oregon and sponsor of a companion measure in the Senate, by passing an equal-access measure the Congress "will do far more for religious liberty than through any attempt to resurrect routine, formalistic, and government-structured prayers."

"I'm coming fresh out of two and a half weeks of debate on prayer in the Senate, and I think something positive can come out of that debate," said the Senator, who was one of 18 Republicans to vote against the Reagan Administration-backed amendment. "We can act in a manner that will adequately protect the right of our people to be free from having an alien religious practice forced upon their children by governmental action, but at the same time allow them to freely exercise their own religion without government hostility."

Practical Consideration

But Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, questioned whether, as a practical matter, school officials could accommodate the needs of all student religious groups.

"What about the Moonies, they're a cult?" he asked. "And what about demonology? What happens if some kids want to sacrifice a pig or a lamb in a classroom before all the other kids show up for school?"

Representative Ackerman also questioned whether students belonging to minority religious groups would be "emotionally scarred" as a result of the bill's passage.

"Let's say you have an area that's predominantly Protestant, and 99 percent of the students regularly attend a morning service along with all 12 teachers and the principal," he postulated. "What's going to happen to the two Jewish kids and the one Catholic kid?"

"If you're coming from an area that's so homogeneous, and the people are that fervent in their pursuit of their religion, such a problem is unavoidable," answered Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who testified in favor of the bill.

"All that this discussion shows is the wisdom of the founding fathers in deciding to keep religion out of government and government out of religion," Representative Edwards interjected.

Earlier in his testimony, he said he would be willing to work with members of the panel in drafting "a true open-forum bill" that would require school officials to provide a forum for all forms of student speech once that access is provided to any single kind of student group. Representatives Bonker and Frank and several members of the subcommittee indicated that they might be willing to accept that compromise.

The panel was expected to complete action on the Bonker measure by the end of last week, according to subcommittee aides.

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