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Defeat of Equal Access Bill Could End School Prayer Issue for This Session of Congress

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The rejection by the House yesterday of a bill to allow high school students to meet voluntarily on their free time in public schools for religious purposes could end the school prayer issue for this session of Congress.

The bill , known as the Equal Access Act, was rejected when it failed to get the needed two-thirds majority by ll votes. The vote was 270 in favor to 151 against.

The measure, introduced by Reps. Don Bonker (D. Wash.) and Carl Perkins (D. Ky.), would have cut off federal funds from any school that prohibited voluntary student religious groups if it permitted any other type of student initiated group.

Bonker said yesterday that he doubted that a new bill would come into the House this year because of the shortened session of Congress due to the Presidential conventions. For the same reason, he did not believe that an equal access bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. Mark Hatfied (R. Ore.) would be taken up in that body.

The Equal Access Act was opposed by a coalition of 22 national organizations, including eight Jewish groups. A representative of one of the Jewish organi zations noted today that the final vote was very close yesterday with many representatives switching sides at the last moment.

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).

The effort for the equal access bill came after the Senate in March rejected a Constitutional amendment to permit organized voluntary spoken prayer in public schools. The coalition against the bill, at a press conference last week, said the bill would give the supporters every thing they sought in the Constitutional amendment.

Norman Redlich, dean of the New York University School of Law and chairman of the American Jewish Congress’ Commission on Law and Social Action, charged that cults, proselytizing groups and other religious groups could go into schools under the bill and “proselytize and divide our young men and women, boys and girls.”

CONSEQUENCES IF BILL PASSED

At yesterday’s short House debate, Rep. Don Edwards (D. Calif.) said that if the bill passed it would allow missionary groups to use the schools to convert children.

Rep. Charles Schumer (D. N.Y.) said the bill would “add a fourth ‘R’ to the curriculum of our schools– reading, writing,’rithmetic and religion. Three students in any school district could get together and invite devil worship, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and any other cults to their schools and it couldn’t be stopped.”

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D. N. Y. ) noted that while supporters of the bill said that, if adopted, the House bill could be changed later in conference with the Senate, earlier attempts to amend the bill had been rejected.

ARGUEMENTS BY SUPPORTERS OF THE BILL

Bonker said the bill would “protect public high school students’ free speech, without violating the separation of church and state. ” He said it was not putting prayer back in the classroom but only giving “equal treatment” to religious groups.

Supporters of the bill had argued that it would extend to high schools the 1981 Supreme Court decision in Widmar vs. Vincent in which the court ruled that a state university cannot forbid students to use the facilities for religious purposes if it makes them generally available for other student groups.

But at last week’s press conference, Redlich stressed that a high school is not in the same category since students are required by law to attend, while going to college is discretionary. It was also noted that in some states secondary school students, the term used in the bill, can be 12-year-old junior high school students.

The bill required a two-thirds vote because it was under a special rule which limits debate and bars amendments. The bill was approved by the Education and Labor Committee headed by Perkins. But if Hatfield’s bill is adopted by the Senate, it would come up in the House under the Judiciary Committee where there is less support for it.

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