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House Backs Silent Prayer, Use of Schools for Religious Meetings

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Washington--The Democratic-controlled House approved legislation this summer allowing public-school students to pray silently in school at any time and to hold religiously oriented meetings during noninstructional hours.

Action on the measures was driven largely by election-year pressures on Representatives to make public their stance on what leaders of both political parties are calling the traditional values, House members acknowledged.

"We think it's important to get these people on the record," Representative Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, was quoted by news services as saying. "We're trying to show that what the Democrats said [at their national convention in San Francisco] and how they vote are two different things."

By endorsing the religious-meet-ings and silent-prayer measures, Democrats "can still say we voted for prayer in the schools," said the chairman of the party's Congressional Campaign Committee, Representative Tony Coelho of California.

President Exerted Pressure

The measures were passed overwhelmingly on consecutive days in late July, shortly after President Reagan accused House Democratic leaders during a nationally televised press conference of bottling them up.

The "equal-access" legislation had been attached as a rider by the Senate in late June to a bill authorizing a $965-million, two-year program to improve instruction and student achievement in mathematics and science. The House voted 393-15 to approve the Senate-amended measure, HR 1310, without change on July 25, thus clearing it for the President's signature.

President Reagan announced during a national radio broadcast that he had signed the legislation on Aug. 11

The second measure, the silent-prayer proposal, was offered as an amendment to a bill reauthorizing 11 education programs. It was approved 356 to 50 on July 26 only after the chamber narrowly defeated another proposed amendment that would have cut off federal funds to schools that prevented students from saying vocal prayers. The vote on the vocal-prayer proposal was 194-215.

After passing the bill, HR 11, House leaders first used a parliamentary procedure to transform a Senate-approved bill, S 2496, into an identical copy and then requested a conference on that bill with the Senate. The White House has indicated that the President will probably sign the measure if the confer-ence report clears both chambers of the Congress.

Significant Differences

The prayer and equal-access measures approved by the House vary significantly from bills defeated in the Congress last spring.

Last March, the Senate killed by a 55-to-44 vote a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed vocal, organized prayer in schools. In May, the House failed by 11 votes to pass a bill that would have cut off federal funds for school districts that prohibited student religious groups from meeting on school grounds during school hours. (See Education Week, March 28 and May 23, 1984.)

The main difference between the prayer bill passed by the House and the one defeated by the Senate is that it is not a constitutional amendment and therefore does not have to beratified by two-thirds of the state legislatures before taking effect. In addition, it protects silent prayer only and does not provide for sanctions against school districts violating its provisions.

Status Quo

A number of school-prayer supporters in and out of Congress, in fact, have criticized its passage as doing little more that affirming the status quo.

"I personally would rather have not seen it happen," said Gary Jarmin, executive director of Christian Voice, an evangelical Christian group that lobbied extensively in favor of vocal prayer.

"It accomplished little more than to give liberal Democrats a vote to go home on," he explained.

He added that the defeat of the vocal-prayer amendment "was possibly the best thing that could have happened."

"It will show voters what [the Democrats'] true colors are," Mr. Jarmin said.

Likewise, the equal-access measure that won approval varied significantly from its predecessor. Unlike the earlier version, it ensures access to all student groups, religious and secular, applies only to meetings held during noninstructional time, and does not provide for a funding cutoff for those districts found in violation of it.

Tail Wags Dog

Like the tail that wagged the dog, the prayer and equal-access amendments largely overshadowed the parent bills to which they were attached.

HR 1310 authorizes $425 million in the current fiscal year and $540 million in fiscal 1985 for a variety of programs in the Education Department and National Science Foundation aimed at improving the quality of and increasing the size of the mathematics and science teaching force.

This task would be accomplished by: providing block grants to states for teacher inservice and retraining programs; providing scholarships and forgivable loans to prospective teachers; establishing summer institutes and workshops for teachers; creating a program of matching grants to states and school districts for cooperative programs with businesses; and by providing grants to postsecondary institutions for research projects and teacher training.

Amendments added to the bill by the Senate would: authorize a $75-million magnet-schools program to aid school districts undergoing desegregation; shift responsibility for removing asbestos in public schools from the Education Department to the Environmental Protection Agency; and authorize $16 million in fiscal 1984 and 1985 for awards to school districts that establish programs to carry out the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education and other national studies of education released in the last year.

HR 11 reauthorizes 11 education programs through fiscal 1989, including bilingual education, Indian education, and grants to school districts enrolling a high percentage of immigrant children.

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