School-Prayer Provision in Goals 2000 Seen 'Harmless'

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The school-prayer provision that ended up in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act is essentially "harmless'' from school districts' perspective, several observers said last week. But Congress is virtually certain to continue its rancorous debate over the issue later this year.

The Goals 2000 bill won final approval in Congress late last month only after Democrats defeated a series of delaying tactics employed by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who objected to a watering down of his school-prayer language by a House-Senate conference committee.

"What ended up in the bill is harmless,'' said Robert Peck, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "All it does is say that no funds in the act may be used to adopt policies against voluntary prayer.''

Under Senator Helms's original amendment, a district could have lost all its federal funding if it prevented voluntary prayer in schools. Democrats blunted the proposal by limiting its application to "constitutionally protected'' voluntary prayer by individuals, and the amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 75 to 22, becoming part of the Senate version of Goals 2000. (See Education Week, Feb. 16, 1994.)

Senator Helms's provision could have led school districts to lose funding over any prayer dispute, Mr. Peck said.

"You would be putting school districts in an impossible position,'' he said. "They may be violating the [U.S. Constitution's] establishment clause if they allow prayer, but they would [otherwise] lose federal funding.''

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said on the Senate floor last month that while most lawmakers were not concerned about the Helms amendment, a March 10 letter, signed by the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National Education Association, the National PTA, and the National School Boards Association, prompted many to change their view.

The letter said that under Mr. Helms's amendment, school officials would have to guess at which prayers are constitutionally protected, and it expressed fear that groups advocating so-called voluntary student prayers would use the provision as a legal "weapon.''

A 'Do Nothing' Measure?

Nick Penning, the director of legislation for the A.A.S.A., said education groups would rather have no prayer language at all in the bill "because all it does is complicate things.''

"But we were pleased to see that the Helms language was stricken in conference,'' he added.

Conferees changed the Senate's prayer language to simply bar state agencies and school districts from using funds from Goals 2000 programs "to adopt policies that prevent voluntary prayer and meditation in public schools.''

Senator Helms last month called the revised language a "do-nothing amendment.''

"It was intended to be one of these 'C.M.F.' amendments, meaning 'cover my fanny,''' he said March 23 on the Senate floor.

Other Senate advocates of voluntary prayer agreed that the revised language was not strong enough and said it violated the will of the majority of Senators who backed Mr. Helms's amendment.

Sen. Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind., cited a list of cases in which students "have been denied their right to free expression of their faith'' by school authorities.

The revised language "is totally inadequate to address the situation,'' he said on the Senate floor.

But Goals 2000 proponents were able to muster the 60 votes needed to end Mr. Helms's brief filibuster over the issue and pass the bill early on March 26.

However, the debate over voluntary prayer in schools is likely to continue.

At least a half-dozen state legislatures this year are considering bills intended to give legal support to voluntary student prayer. Lawmakers in Virginia and Mississippi have already passed such bills. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1994.)

Meanwhile, the House on March 21 added a prayer amendment similar to Senator Helms's Goals 2000 language to legislation that would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The House voted 345 to 64 to add the provision sponsored by Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Tex., which would bar all federal funds to districts that prohibited voluntary, constitutionally protected prayer.

The House rejected an alternative amendment by Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., that was similar to the final Goals 2000 language.

"I was dumbfounded when they failed to pass Williams's amendment,'' said Mr. Penning of the A.A.S.A. "Apparently, [House members] have constituencies out there that they are afraid of.''

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