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Schools Get Free 'Legal Advice' on Religious-Freedom Issues

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Mark Walsh

In their holiday-season mail, school superintendents across the nation are getting conflicting legal advice about such issues as student-led prayers and Christmas observances in schools.

The advice comes in the form of legal "bulletins'' from interest groups on opposite sides of contentious religious-freedom issues.

The American Civil Liberties Union has distributed about 16,000 copies of a new bulletin offering its legal views on issues such as graduation prayer and religious holiday parties in schools. The ACLU has also produced a videotape for educators, "America's Constitutional Heritage.''

The ACLU says its video is a direct response to one being distributed by fundamentalist-Christian organizations, entitled "America's Godly Heritage.'' That video contends that the Founding Fathers never intended to erect a high "wall of separation'' between church and state or to bar prayers from the public schools.

Meanwhile, the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal organization started by the Rev. Pat Robertson, has issued the latest in a series of letters on religious freedom issues to 15,000 superintendents. Its Dec. 3 letter urges administrators not to bar holiday observances in public schools.

"Certain national public-interest groups have been pressuring local school districts to censor religious expressions during Christmas,'' states the letter from Jay Alan Sekulow, the ACLU's chief counsel. "You should be aware that no court has ever banned the singing of religious Christmas carols by public school choirs.''

But the ACLU warns in its bulletin that the U.S. Constitution's ban on a government establishment of religion "prohibits public schools from sponsoring holiday observances--including Christmas programs or Christmas pageants--that promote or emphasize the religious significance of the holiday.''

Prayer in School?

The ACLU's 35-minute video about religious issues in public schools is hosted by the Rev. W.W. Finlator, a Baptist minister from Raleigh, N.C.

"Many of you, I am sure, have asked yourselves whether prayer belongs in public schools,'' Mr. Finlator tells viewers. "The founders of our nation strongly believed that government ... should not become involved, in any way, in religious activities.''

Phil Gutis, a spokesman for the ACLU, said the organization planned to be more aggressive in disseminating its positions on religion issues to school administrators.

"We have long felt it important to respond to whatever misinformation has been sent to schools by the other side,'' he said. "Our goal now is to become more proactive in providing information to school officials.''

Mr. Gutis said the ACLU is seeking funding to distribute the video for free to school officials. In the meantime, it is for sale for $4.95 a copy.

'A Christian Nation'

"America's Godly Heritage'' was produced several years ago by Wallbuilders Inc., a Texas based Christian publishing concern.

That video, hosted by David Barton of Wallbuilders, emphasizes writings of the Founding Fathers and some 19th-century U.S. Supreme Court cases that view the United States as a fundamentally "Christian nation.''

The video also asserts that the decline of the nation's public schools began when the High Court banned official prayers in 1962.

Kit Marshall, a spokeswoman for Wallbuilders, said that about 100,000 copies of "America's Godly Heritage'' have been sold or given to individuals and Christian organizations since 1990. The video is not aimed specifically at school administrators, she said, "but we have individuals who are buying them to give to public officials, or to share with their neighbors.''

"Our purpose is to educate people to the fallacy of the current views on separation of church and state,'' she added.

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