Legislatures Continue to Wrestle With School Prayer


The U.S. constitutional tension between the right to freedom of religious expression and its limits has long posed thorny policy questions for politicians and educational officials, but in the last year those questions have grown more acute.

The debate over rights and limits exploded with new force after last April 20 when two youths carried out the most violent and deadly school house massacre in the nation's history at Colorado's Columbine High School.

The U.S. House of Representatives reacted by passing a bill that lets schools choose to post the Ten Commandments if they so wish. At least six states considered similar measures and nine looked at bills promoting a moment of silence or prayer at school.

"Schools are a battle ground for religious expression," said Crystal Roberts, a legal policy analyst for the conservative Family Research Council.

While some of these bills were already being considered when the Columbine killings occurred, that incident gave powerful new impetus to those who want to see greater emphasis on religion, morals and character in public education.

"What happened at Columbine went to everyone's heart and it is affecting the urgency with which people address this," Roberts said.

Another reason for the urgency, at least in the case of the U.S. House Bill, is that some free exercise advocates believe that there may be enough votes on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Stone vs Graham the decision against posting the Ten Commandments.

The First Amendment guarantees that the government will not establish a religion, or prohibit the free exercise of religion. While one side argues that public school-related religious acts conflict with the doctrine of separation of church and state, others say that the freedom of students to exercise their religion is jeopardized by today's environment.

State legislatures that considered Ten Commandment legislation this year included Arkansas, Indiana, Florida, Colorado, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Those that dealt with a "moment of silence" were Alabama, New Jersey, Mississippi and Tennessee. Graduation prayer was an issue in Delaware, Florida, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Louisiana.

At one point, courts gave a green light to student-initiated prayer, but subsequent differing decisions have confused the issue. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a New York teacher's case involving prayer in school. The school had prevented the teacher from praying outside of the classroom with students -- a prohibition that was let stand by the high court's refusal to intervene.

Ten Commandments legislation is in committee in Florida, Mississippi, Indiana and Oklahoma. It passed the Arkansas House, but was voted down by a state Senate panel. In Colorado, lawmakers held a press conference last June to announce that they will introduce a Ten Commandments bill in January 2000.

Moment of silence bills ended up in committee in Tennessee, Mississippi, Indiana and New Jersey. On May 6, the Alabama House passed a silence bill.

Florida's prayer bill passed both the house and senate committees. The Louisiana version passed the full legislature. The New Hampshire House voted down a prayer bill on April 14 and Delaware's bill was sent to committee. Rhode Island's bill dealt with graduation prayer at the college level - it passed as a state Senate resolution in June.


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