Equal-Access Bill Said Likely To Promote Religion

By Tom Mirga — May 02, 1984 3 min read

A controversial bill designed to provide student religious groups with “equal access” to high-school facilities “is a wolf in sheep’s clothing” that would have the sole effect of advancing religion, a prominent civil-rights advocate told members of a House Judiciary subcommittee last week.

If the bill, HR 5345, is passed by the Congress and upheld by the courts, “the only way some communities will be able to distinguish the church from the school is that the church will have a steeple,” warned the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, during a hearing before the House Civil and Constitutional Rights Subcommittee.

The chairman of the panel, Representative Don Edwards, Democrat of California, convened the hearing to hear testimony on HR 5439, a measure he introduced as a substitute for the equal-access bill.

Displeased With Measure

Representative Edwards has not hidden his displeasure with HR 5345, which is sponsored by Representative Don Bonker, Democrat of Washington, nor his displeasure with the fact that it was drafted in a way designed to bypass his subcommittee.

According to Congressional aides, supporters of the Bonker bill feared that Representative Edwards would use his powers as chairman of the panel to bottle up the measure. As a result, they acted to ensure its referral to the House Education and Labor Committee, which eventually cleared it for consideration by the full House on a 30-3 vote.

The chamber’s Democratic leadership has agreed to consider the measure under suspension of the rules, which means it cannot be debated or amended. It is expected to come up for a vote on May 7.

During his opening remarks, Representative Edwards noted that proponents of the Bonker measure “are quite open about the lengths to which they went to bypass this committee.”

“One must ask why,” he said. “What is it that they didn’t want us to examine? Is there something that cannot pass constitutional muster?

‘Back-Door’ Approach

‘I can only conclude that there is,” he continued, stating that he is now convinced that the bill is a “subterfuge” for bringing school prayer into public schools “through the back door, using the soothing, and ostensibly neutral language of ‘equal access.”’

During his testimony, Rev. Lynn expanded on Representative Edwards’s comment, stating that passage of the bill “would open not only the back door, but the front door, the side doors, and even the skylight to all religious groups.”

The bill would “almost certainly require” a principal to grant a demand from a Ku Klux Klan student group to meet, he predicted, explaining that the group regularly invokes Christian doctrine to support its policies. Rev. Lynn also said that, as drafted, the bill would probably allow school officials to permit a minimum student requirement “to foreclose five Jewish students in a predominantly Christian schools from forming a study club.”

The measure “would work much greater mischief than any moment of prayer by granting time and space for organized worship, doctrinal teaching, and efforts at religious conversion,” he said.

By contrast, the Edwards bill, which would simply make it unlawful for school districts to discriminate against any students groups on the basis of the content of speech that occurs at their meetings, “will not cross the forbidden line of support of religion,” the Reverend added. “It will guarantee that student discussion of religion will take place along with student discussion of politics, stamp collecting, and computers,” he said.

Policy Called Unwise

Norman Redlich, dean of the New York University Law School, testified that although the Edwards bill is constitutionally permissible as drafted, its passage would represent unwise public policy.

“I seriously doubt that we want to take away the discretion of public-school officials with respect to educational judgments,” he said.

“What is constitutional is not always wise,” Mr. Redlich said in his testimony against both of the equal-access measures.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 1984 edition of Education Week as Equal-Access Bill Said Likely To Promote Religion