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Big-City Blacks Join in Push for Prayer in School

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The movement to restore prayer to the public schools, a cause long associated with conservative Christians, the Republican Party, and small-town residents, appears to be gaining new ground among African-Americans and white liberals in urban areas.

Many city residents say that allowing students to recite prayers each day would help restore a moral foundation to the public schools, something they say is badly needed in an era when school violence has become commonplace.

"We have guns in school. We have drugs in school. We have violence in school. Why can't we have prayer?'' said Marion S. Barry Jr., a member of the District of Columbia city council and former Mayor who is sponsoring a bill that would allow voluntary, nonsectarian student-led prayer in Washington's public schools.

A similar student-prayer measure proposed as a ballot initiative by a community activist has been the subject of intense debate among Washington residents in recent weeks. Hundreds of residents have urged the local elections board to allow the measure on the November ballot. The panel this month concluded that the measure was not "patently unconstitutional'' and could go before voters if a petition drive is successful.

"The boundary lines have been crossed'' between races and political parties on the student-prayer issue, asserted Charles Ballard, a carpentry instructor who proposed the District of Columbia initiative.

The nation's capital, which has a black-majority population, historically has been Democratic and liberal in its politics. And liberal groups typically have fought the return of prayer to the schools since it was ruled unconstitutional more than 30 years ago.

Now, Mr. Ballard said, "conservative whites and urban blacks are experiencing the same problems.''

Prayer Bills Advance

Legislatures in at least seven states have considered bills this year that are intended to provide legal support for student-initiated prayers during at least some public school events. Alabama and Tennessee passed prayer bills last year. The Mississippi and Virginia legislatures did so this year. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1994.)

Advocates of strict separation of church and state argue that such efforts are misguided and that the measures ultimately will be overturned as promoting government establishment of religion in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Conservative groups such as the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal organization formed by the Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, have pushed the issue. But the supporters of what used to be only a conservative movement have become more diverse:

  • In Mississippi, the effort to pass a prayer bill was energized by a controversy over Bishop Knox, an African-American high school principal in Jackson who allowed students to read daily prayers over the intercom last November. Mr. Knox was suspended by the school board over the incident.
  • In Georgia, the legislature passed a bill sponsored by a liberal Democratic senator from Atlanta, David Scott, that calls for a mandatory moment of "quiet reflection'' in schools.
  • In Florida, a bill that would allow voluntary student prayers is being co-sponsored by State Rep. Beryl Burke, a freshman African-American legislator who represents Miami's predominantly black Liberty City neighborhood.

"We are grabbing at every straw possible to combat the problem of juvenile crime,'' Ms. Burke said. "We believe in instilling more moral principles and godly values into these kids.''

The Fraying Moral Fabric

Even opponents of the prayer measures agree that the idea of school prayer seems to be taking hold with new constituencies.

"A lot of people I know who are educated and thoughtful are wondering why we can't have prayer,'' said Jeffrey Weintraub, the Washington-area director of the American Jewish Committee, who has spoken out against the District of Columbia prayer proposals.

"What's driving people to support the concept of school prayer is an observance that the moral fabric of the community has apparently disappeared,'' he said. "All you have to do is look at the newspapers and see that kids are killing each other in the schools themselves.''

Mr. Barry, meanwhile, said in an interview that the "power of persistent prayer'' can be one step in reducing youth violence.

The former Mayor of Washington said prayer helped turn his life around while he served a six-month sentence on a federal drug-possession conviction. He was elected to the city council after his release.

Mr. Barry said he does not accept the argument that students can simply pray silently whenever they want. "Prayer needs to be heard as well as said by people who believe in it,'' he said.

He also discounted the argument that student-led prayers would make students from religious minorities feel excluded.

"I think adults make too much about that,'' he said. "Young people don't have these hang-ups. I don't know a prayer I've heard that is an offensive prayer.''

The push for student prayer is also gaining support from many of Washington's influential black ministers, which is dismaying to Mr. Weintraub.

Opponents are facing "a very strong sentiment that prayer is the answer and that those opposed to prayers in public schools are somehow godless and hostile to religion,'' he said. "This is the part that particularly bothers me.''

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