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Education, Legal Groups Draft Guidelines for Equal Access Act

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Washington--A broad coalition of education and legal groups has drafted guidelines for the implementation of the Equal Access Act, which the Congress passed in August to guarantee student religious groups the same access as nonreligious groups to public-school facilities.

The guidelines "could be of service immediately" to school administrators uncertain about their responsibilities in the face of the legal conflict between the Congress and the courts over equal access, according to Bruce Hunter, legislative specialist with the American Association of School Administrators, one of the groups that crafted the guidelines.

The equal-access law passed by the Congress runs counter to decisions in four federal appeals courts, which affect 12 states. (See Educa-tion Week, Aug. 22, 1984.)

The twin goals of the guidelines are to minimize confusion and potential litigation, according to participants, who said they do not plan to forward their product to the Education Department.

The department, meanwhile, is writing regulations for implementation of the equal-access statute but has no specific timetable for their completion, according to Albert L. Alford, special assistant to the Secretary of Education. Samuel Ericsson, Washington director of the Christian Legal Society, and Mr. Hunter, however, reported that there is disagreement within the department over whether regulations will ever be completed.

Mr. Hunter called the recommendations "a common ground for agreement" on the meaning of the law among groups that were on op-posite sides of the equal-access debate. (See text on this page.)

Other principal participants in the discussions were: the American Civil Liberties Union, the Christian Legal Society, the National Education Association, the National Association for Evangelicals, Americans for Democratic Action, and the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs.

Representative Don Bonker, Democrat of Washington and the measure's main House sponsor, called the guidelines "consistent with Congressional intent." He published a draft version of the guidelines in the Sept. 24 Congressional Record because, an aide said, "we wanted to get at least a draft in as soon as possible."

Barry W. Lynn of the aclu said he was "very disappointed" that Representative Bonker had published an unfinished version of the guidelines, which "reflect something we have not officially signed off on." He added, however, that even if the aclu's suggested changes are not accepted, his group may approve the current draft.

John W. Baker, general counsel of the Baptist committee, which initiated the negotiations, said he expected a final version to be prepared by early October. He said the changes being made are "editorial, nothing substantive."

Surprising Outcome

Participants in the discussions--held here beginning in early August--said they overcame initial skepticism over the possibility of reaching a consensus and that they are pleased by the outcome.

"I can't honestly think of anything in the last 10 years--since I've been in Washington--where this kind of thing was done," said Mr. Lynn, referring to the agreement among some traditional antagonists.

The guidelines proposed are "painted with a broad brush stroke" to try to leave as much as possible up to local communities, according to Mr. Ericsson.

Mr. Hunter called the guidelines--written in a question-and-answer format--a first step. He said his group was preparing more specific guidelines for schools that choose not to maintain limited open forums, as prescribed by the act.

The American Jewish Congress, an opponent of the equal-access legislation when it was before the Congress, was not invited to participate in the discussions, according to Mr. Lynn. But the ajc has published its own guide to equal access, available from the group at 15 East 84th St., New York, N.Y. 10028.

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