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Bills in Six States Address Student-Led Prayers

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Lawmakers in at least six states have jumped into the fray over student-led prayers in public schools.

Several bills have been introduced to give legal support for so-called student-initiated or voluntary prayers at graduations and other noncompulsory school events.

Sponsors say the measures are written to be consistent with a much-debated 1992 federal appeals-court ruling that approved student-led, nonsectarian prayers at a Texas high school graduation.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which had ruled earlier in 1992 that school-sponsored graduation prayers are unconstitutional, last year let stand the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District. Many advocates of strict church-state separation, however, still doubt the constitutionality of the Fifth Circuit's ruling. (See Education Week, June 16, 1993.)

The bills proposed in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are not confined to prayers at graduation. Several endorse prayers at school athletic contests and assemblies, while one Mississippi bill would permit "nonsectarian, nonproselytizing student-initiated voluntary prayer'' at all school events, not just those that are not compulsory.

That measure has passed the Mississippi House and is awaiting action in the Senate. A separate bill permitting prayers at noncompulsory events has passed the Senate and is now in the House.

Two other prayer bills have been introduced in Mississippi, including one that would reduce state funding of school districts that bar voluntary prayer.

In Virginia, two bills that support student-initiated school prayer have passed the House and are now in the Senate.

Most of the bills in the other states are in committee.

Prayers on the Intercom

Most observers agree that an episode last fall involving a Jackson, Miss., high school principal has fueled the school-prayer issue.

Principal Bishop Knox was fired in November after he allowed students to read prayers over the intercom on three mornings, against the advice of school district lawyers. The Jackson school board later reinstated Mr. Knox, but suspended him without pay for the rest of the school year. (See Education Week, Dec. 15, 1993, and Jan. 12, 1994.)

Many students and local residents, as well as Gov. Kirk Fordice, rallied on behalf of Mr. Knox and demanded a return of student-led prayers to public schools.

Supporters of the prayer bills believe they pass constitutional muster. They are needed, advocates contend, in an era when condoms are distributed in public schools but prayers are banned.

"We feel that God has been left sitting on the shelf long enough,'' said Fay Mowdy, the leader of a grassroots Mississippi group called Christians Revolutionizing America for Christ. "Putting God back in our schools is the answer.''

Advocates of strict church-state separation contend that most, if not all, of the pending bills would violate the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion.

"The whole idea of so-called student-initiated prayer is really an attempt to create a false impression,'' said Elliott M. Mincberg, the legal director of People for the American Way, a Washington-based civil-liberties group.

Even when such prayers are called student-initiated or voluntary, they are "in effect government-endorsed prayer,'' Mr. Mincberg said. "The fact that it is said by a student doesn't really make a difference.''

Observers say that some lawmakers may fear the political consequences of voting against the prayer bills. A bill permitting student-initiated prayers at noncompulsory events passed the Tennessee legislature last year with only one opposing vote in each house.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is currently preparing a legal challenge, said Hedy Weinberg, the group's executive director.

"The attorney general opined two or three times that the bill was unconstitutional, and we lobbied against it,'' Ms. Weinberg said. "We were frustrated with only one member of each chamber voting against it.''

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