WASHINGTON (May. 10)
Eight Jewish organizations have joined a coalition of 22 national organizations to oppose a bill requiring public schools to allow students to meet voluntarily for religious purposes.
The measure, known as the equal access bill, introduced by Reps. Don Bunker (D. Wash.) and Carl Perkins (D. Ky.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, would deny federal funds to any secondary school which permits groups formed by students but prohibits any such group, if it is for religious purposes, to meet on school grounds.
House Speaker Thomas O’Neill Jr. (D. Mass.), as a special favor to Perkins, has agreed to bring up the bill early next week under a special rule that permits no amendments and limits debate to 20 minutes for each side.
At a press conference at the Capitol today, members of the coalition charged that the bill, now in the House, would give its supporters everything they sought in the Constitutional amendment allowing prayer in public schools, which was rejected by the Senate earlier this year.
COMPARED TO SCHOOL PRAYER AMENDMENT
“Those who are supporting the bill can legitimately feel that it does what the school prayer amendment was designed to do,” Norman Redlich, dean of the New York University School of Law and chairman of the American Jewish Congress’ Commission on Law and Social Action, said.
Redlich charged that the proposed bill would allow cults, prosetylizing groups and other religious groups, no matter how small, to go into schools and “prosetylize and divide our young men and women, boys and girls.”
Linda Tarr-Whelan, Director of Government Affairs of the National Education Association, said at today’s press conference that public school administrators and teachers are concerned about the cut-off of federal funds provision since a small group could thus threaten the funding of programs needed by large numbers of students. She also noted that secondary school students in some states could be as young as 12 years of age.
Redlich said that the bill would take away the “discretion” from a high school administrator on what groups would be allowed in a school, which, he noted is not a public forum but an educational institution which children are required to attend.
DANGER OF PROPOSED BILL CITED
He said high schools would then become either a “London Hyde Park” type of place in which all groups, regardless of what they advocate, would be permitted, or an “intellectually barren desert” in which all groups would be banned in order to prevent religious groups. He said the proposed law would allow Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups to have an “additional First Amendment argument” to get into schools.
Pat Ryan, daughter of the late Rep. Leo Ryan (D. Calif.) who was killed several years ago while investigating the Jonestown cult in Guyana, said the bill would be used by every cult group to gain entry to the public schools.
Rabbi Joseph Glaser, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform), noted that he had been chairman of Religion in American Life which sought to bring people back to the churches and synagogues. But, he said, the sponsors of the bill were “dumping the failure of the clergy and congregations to attract people to churches and synagogues” on the schools.
He said that religion belongs in the church and the synagogue and in the home and not in the school where it would divide students and make this country “into another Lebanon.”
Rev. Charles Bergstrom, executive director of the Office of Government Affairs of the Lutheran Council, said the bill would “cheapen religion and undermine education.”
SAYS PROBLEMS WITH BILL WILL BE CORRECTED
Tarr-Whelan rejected the argument that the problems with the House bill would be straightened out in a conference session with the Senate. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D. Ohio) has prevented a Senate version, which does not include the threat of a federal funding cut-off, from coming to the floor. Tarr-Whelan noted that all amendments to the House bill were rejected by Perkins’ committee.
The members of the coalition opposed any bill and Redlich noted that any students who feel their rights have been violated can seek remedies in the courts.
Supporters of the bill were prompted to introduce it by federal court decisions prohibiting bible classes in public schools. But Redlich noted that this was only a small part of the proposed bill. He said it would allow outsiders to come into the schools to conduct religious services and prayer meetings.
The eight Jewish organizations in the coalition against the bill are: American Jewish Committee; American Jewish Congress; Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith; B’nai B’rith International; B’nai B’rith Women; National Council of Jewish Women; National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council; and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
The rest of the coalition is composed of educational, civil rights and religious groups and others, such as the National Coalition for Public Education and Religious Liberty (PEARL).