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News Briefs, part 1

Congress Told Constitution Is Answer to Prayer Debate

The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

A diverse coalition of religious and civil-liberties groups offered blunt advice Thursday to congressional leaders and educators who are trying to create new laws or new policies on public-school prayer: Read the Constitution first.

In an attempt to temper and clarify the growing national debate over school prayer, an issue Republicans in Congress are vowing to take up soon, about three dozen groups ranging from the American Jewish Congress to the National Association of Evangelicals and People for the American Way backed a statement outlining a number of constitutionally protected ways public-school students can practice their religion.

Some groups touted the statement as proof of why Congress should not support a constitutional amendment, or other legislation, to sanction school prayer. But others said its purpose was only to guide school leaders through the often-confusing and contentious task of regulating religion in public classrooms.

"Many who labor under the misperception that schools must be religious-free zones will be surprised at how much accommodation of religious faith is constitutionally permissible," said Forest Montgomery, counsel of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 50,000 churches.

"Far too often we've heard political leaders say that it's illegal for schoolchildren to pray over lunch, or carry a Bible to school," said Elliot Mincberg, executive vice president for the liberal public-policy group People for the American Way. "None of that is true."

The coalition based its statement on a review of Supreme Court rulings on freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The statement emphasizes that public-school students have the right to pray individually, to be taught about the historical influence of religion, to meet in religious clubs before and after class hours, to express religious beliefs in reports and artwork, and to wear clothing or jewelry bearing religious messages or symbols.

Ukraine to Close Chernobyl In Exchange for Non-Nuclear Plant

Special to the Los Angeles Times
KIEV, Ukraine

Ukraine will close the accident-plagued Chernobyl nuclear station by the year 2000 and replace it with a gas-fired power station, a visiting delegation of Western officials announced Thursday.

"The new millennium will begin with a closed Chernobyl station," said a delighted Michel Barnier, France's environment minister, after hashing out the agreement in a meeting with Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma and representatives of the European Union and the Group of Seven industrialized nations, known as G-7.

Barnier applauded Ukraine's decision as "courageous and important" while noting that decommissioning the plant would be a complicated process.

"But now that Ukraine has given a definite date for closing the plant, we can decide these issues in solidarity," he said, adding that a schedule for closing Chernobyl's reactors will be ready next month.

The West had been annoyed by Ukraine's earlier determination to keep operating the Chernobyl station, site of the world's worst nuclear disaster nine years ago. An estimated 8,000 people have died from radiation-related disease since one of the four Chernobyl reactors melted down April 26, 1986. Half a million more suffered potentially dangerous exposure.

Friction has been especially intense between Ukraine and the rest of Europe, which was showered with radioactive fallout from Chernobyl and fears a repeat.

Ukraine has invested $300 million in improvements that it believes has made the plant one of the safest in the country. Ukraine had insisted it would close Chernobyl only if the West was willing to pay for the "comprehensive solution" that Kuchma had advocated.

That meant not just flipping the "off" switch, which Kuchma said would make the plant even more dangerous, but also finding new sources of electricity, procuring jobs for Chernobyl's 5,000 workers and ensuring the safety of the concrete "sarcophagus" covering the destroyed reactor.