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Activists Oppose Constitutional Amendment for School Prayer

By Larry B. Stammer and Richard Lee Colvin
Los Angeles Times

A coalition of old line religious leaders and liberal activists stepped up their opposition Wednesday to a proposed constitutional amendment allowing prayer in public schools, saying that existing law makes such an amendment unnecessary.

Public schools are neither "religious free zones," nor venues for imposing religious beliefs on students who do not agree, they said, echoing new federal guidelines on school prayer issued earlier this month by the Clinton administration.

But they warned that a proposed "religious equality amendment" to the U.S. Constitution, sought by conservative politicians and leaders of the religious right, could subject students to unwanted religious harassment and proselytizing on campus - a charge strongly denied by amendment backers.

The administration issued its school prayer guidelines in hopes of both heading off the constitutional amendment and staking out its support of "traditional values" as it looks to next year's presidential election.

The guidelines, based on existing laws, reaffirm student rights to say grace before meals, pray individually or in informally organized prayer groups in public schools as long as they do not cause a disruption. Student religious clubs, like any other extra-curricular activity, also are permitted to meet on campus during non-instructional time.

But, they would not permit such things as organized prayer at graduation ceremonies or other school events where a captive audience would be compelled to participate. And they forbid teachers from promoting or opposing religious activities.

"For some people that is not enough," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Jewish Committee. "What they want in the public schools is the inclusion of daily prayer for other peoples' children, whether those parents want this or not. They want the public schools to be used for religious proselytizing."

Greenebaum was joined by officials of the American Civil Liberties Union, All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., and the Unitarian-Universalist Association at a news conference outside the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters.

It was one of a series of news conferences held across the nation Wednesday to marshal support for the guidelines, characterized by the Clinton administration as recommendations to guide school boards in determining what religious expression is allowed by law on public school campuses.

In Washington, U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley acknowledged that the subject of religion, especially in schools, will remain controversial.

"Nothing can be more sensitive to people than their religion. Add that with their children, and then add the public space of a school where you have different views and teaching is taking place," he said. " We need to stop and think about it and it is not something to take a dogmatic approach on."

But backers of the proposed constitutional amendment say current laws do too little to protect the rights of students to exercise their religious beliefs.