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Clinton Clarifies Remarks on Prayer in Schools

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President Clinton clarified his stance on prayer in public schools last week, saying it would be "an error" to pass a constitutional amendment authorizing voluntary student prayer.

"I do not believe we should have a constitutional amendment to carve out and legalize teacher- or student-led prayer in the classroom," the President said at a Nov. 22 press conference in Washington. "I think that is inherently coercive in a nation with the amount of religious diversity we have."

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court added new fuel to the raging debate over school prayer this month when it struck down an Idaho school district's policy of allowing student-initiated prayers at graduation.

The 2-to-1 ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit conflicts directly with a 1992 ruling by another federal appeals court that allowed student-initiated graduation prayers.

The new ruling could result in the U.S. Supreme Court's taking a fresh look at the school-prayer issue.

President Clinton caused confusion earlier this month when he suggested during a trip to Indonesia that he might be open to Republican efforts to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing students the right to pray in schools. (See Education Week, 11/23/94.)

Moderation Urged

Last week, the President said those comments "may have been overread."

"My position on the prayer issue is, I have always supported a moment of silence when I was Governor," he said.

But an amendment authorizing student-led prayers in the classroom, Mr. Clinton explained, would mean that "for large numbers of our children, it could not be truly voluntary, and I would oppose it."

Mr. Clinton's remarks came as a coalition of Jewish, Muslim, and mainline-Protestant religious organizations called for the federal government to stay out of promoting prayer in schools.

"The proposed amendment would be disastrous," said the open letter from the American Jewish Congress, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, and 13 other religious groups.

Meanwhile, some moderate Republican governors and members of Congress questioned whether a prayer amendment should be a top priority of the incoming G.O.P.-controlled Congress.

At the Republican governors' meeting in Williamsburg, Va., last week, Gov. John Engler of Michigan said, "If we don't deal with economic issues, we'll need more than prayer to solve our problems."

Lower Court Overruled

In the graduation-prayer case, the Ninth Circuit court ruled Nov. 18 that the Grangeville, Idaho, school district violated the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion by allowing students to vote on whether to have prayers at their high school graduation ceremonies.

Several students challenged the policy, which dates to 1990, in a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We cannot allow the school district's delegate to make decisions that the school district cannot make," said the majority opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Charles E. Wiggins in Harris v. Joint School District 241.

The appeals court overturned a ruling by a U.S. District Court judge in Boise, Idaho, that student control over the graduation prayers distinguished the case from the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling in Lee v. Weisman.

The Lee case held that prayers delivered by clergymen at a Rhode Island graduation violated the Constitution's establishment clause. (See Education Week, 08/05/92.)

The Ninth Circuit court also said it was not persuaded by an opposite ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District.

In Jones, the Fifth Circuit court held that a Texas district's policy of allowing students to vote on graduation prayers was not as coercive to students as when school officials themselves decided to include prayers.

The Supreme Court declined to review the Jones ruling in 1993, and prayer advocates have cited its reasoning as the basis for promoting student-led prayers nationwide. (See Education Week, 06/13/93.)

It was not clear last week whether the Grangeville district would appeal to the full Ninth Circuit court or to the Supreme Court.

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