Federal File: Like a prayer; Words and deeds

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School administrators might understandably be confused by the Senate's adoption this month of three separate amendments to the proposed "goals 2000: educate America act'' dealing with school prayer.

The first, proposed on Feb. 3 by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., would cut off federal funds from school districts that bar individual, voluntary prayers in schools. After considerable debate, the measure passed 75 to 22, but not until it was altered to read that schools could not bar "constitutionally protected'' prayers.

The second amendment, introduced by Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., and Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., and passed on Feb. 4, was a resolution encouraging schools to have a brief period of daily silence for students to contemplate their aspirations.

Then on Feb. 7, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., proposed a third amendment because he believed Senator Helms's measure "put a club to the heads of local school boards.'' Senator Levin's amendment, which passed on a voice vote, says a district could not be denied federal funds if it adopted in good faith a "constitutional policy'' on school prayer.

Robert Peck, the legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Senate's passage of Senator Levin's amendment was an indication that the majority was having second thoughts about Senator Helms's measure.

"Levin's amendment essentially blunts Helms's,'' Mr. Peck said.

Nonetheless, the Senate attention was symbolic of the passions the school-prayer issue has inflamed across the nation in recent years, he said.

"The great difficulty [with the amendments] is that nobody knows exactly what 'constitutionally protected prayer' is these days,'' Mr. Peck said.

Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett visited New Hampshire last month, according to news reports, and he discussed welfare, crime, and health care.

With New Hampshire holding the first Presidential primary in the country, it has been the destination of numerous contenders for the 1996 Republican nomination. Mr. Bennett recently said he would not seek the nomination, but he reportedly said he "wouldn't close the door'' on the idea.

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