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GOP Plan Calls for Prayer at Beginning of School Day

By David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

The leading Republican proposal to restore "voluntary prayer" in public schools would let local school authorities require the saying of a prayer at the beginning of each class day. Students who do not wish to participate could sit silently or leave the room, its prime House sponsor says.

The amendment would not make prayer mandatory, nor would state or federal governments be entitled to compose an official school prayer. However, its sponsors said local school officials would have wide latitude to encourage and institute school prayers.

"We want to let local school boards make the decision," said Rep. Ernest Istook Jr., R-Okla., who introduced the constitutional amendment on school prayer. "It does not require that prayers be held. But why should an ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) attorney from New York City tell the people in Chandler, Oklahoma, that they cannot have prayer in the public schools? That's the essence of it."

Istook and other sponsors declined to spell out exactly how the system they envision would work in practice.

For instance, it is not clear whether school boards might be permitted to adopt a prayer or several prayers - The Lord's Prayer or a Psalm - to be used throughout a school system. Another possibility would allow individual teachers or even students to choose the prayer for their classroom or school, perhaps rotating among a group.

If nothing else, the new Republican proposal has prompted sharp dispute over how to define voluntary prayer.

"Clearly when (President) Clinton speaks about voluntary prayer, he means something quite different from (House Speaker-to-be Newt) Gingrich and Istook," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way, a liberal group that opposes school-sponsored prayers.

Monday, Gingrich, the Georgia Republican, turned a new spotlight on the school prayer issue when he said he would seek a vote "before the July 4 break" on the proposed amendment introduced by Istook.

Asked about the proposal in Jakarta Tuesday, Clinton said: "I'll be glad to discuss it with them. I want to see what the details are. ... It depends on what it says."

Clinton's remarks were interpreted by some, especially those opposed to school prayer, as moving farther toward the Republican position than his words explicitly said. Thursday, the White House emphasized the president's position is essentially the same it has been for years. He supports a moment of silence but not a spoken prayer and not a constitutional amendment.

Opposition to the proposed amendment is by no means limited to the administration and liberal groups.

Two leaders of Christian organizations said Thursday they oppose the Republican amendment as it is now drawn because it would give local governments too much power over prayer.

"When the government sponsors prayer, that's not good news for religion," said Steven McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom. "What do you do if you're in Utah and 98 percent of the class is Mormon and you are a Jew or a Catholic or a fundamentalist Christian? It's dangerous for religious freedom because there is an element of coercion involved."

Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said he too is concerned about government sponsorship of prayer.

"We are completely opposed to any prayer that would be composed by, directed by or supervised by the government," Reed said. "We support nonsectarian, student-initiated prayer that is voluntary. That is a free speech issue, not a religion issue."

The amendment, introduced by Istook with 44 cosponsors, says: "Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any state to participate in prayer. Neither the United States nor any state shall compose the words of any prayer to be said in public schools."

If approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate, and three-fourths of the state legislatures, the amendment would reverse a series of Supreme Court rulings that since 1962 have barred officially sponsored school prayers. Presumably, because of the phrase, "other public institutions," it would also allow official prayers in government offices, prisons and courtrooms.