Jewish Groups Declare Victory As Congress Rejects School Prayer

Jewish organizations declared a major victory after Congress overwhelmingly defeated a last-ditch effort to link federal education funding to prayer in public schools.

Both the House and Senate staved off proponents of school prayer by passing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act without reopening the debate on school prayer in the final days of this session.

Congress adjourned last week for the November elections.

The $12 billion education bill is the federal government’s primary vehicle for dispensing aid to public schools.

Jewish groups across the spectrum opposed an initiative by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C), who sought to cut off federal funds to states and school districts that prevent participation in what he considered to be “constitutionally protected” prayer in public schools.

What, if any, school prayer is protected by the constitution is a matter of spirited debate that has not yet been resolved.

Jewish groups opposed Helms’ proposal, fearing that it threatened the separation of church and state, as well as local control of education.

“This marks the death of efforts to get such coercive school prayer language passed by Congress,” said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress.

Michael Lieberman, associate director and counsel of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office, painted a less optimistic picture. He called this year’s battle a “harbinger of what we can expect in the future.

“This shadows the kind of struggle that a Congress with a different dynamic could mean,” he added, referring to predictions that the next Congress may be much more conservative in its makeup.

JEWS LAUNCHED BIG EFFORT TO DEFEAT AMENDMENT

AJCongress, the ADL, the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and other groups launched the largest grass-roots effort on a domestic issue to date to defeat Helms and his supporters, according to many activists.

In February, the House adopted restrictive school prayer language. Jewish groups then mobilized in Washington and across the country in an effort to have the amendment removed from the final education bill.

Although what the Senate and House passed last week does include school prayer language that many view as unnecessary, it is nonetheless “very reasonable,” Pelavin said.

Under the bill, in order for the Education Department to cut off funds to a school, a federal court would have to rule that the school “willfully violated” a court order to allow “constitutionally protected” prayer — a term not yet defined. Activists on both side of the debate agree this scenario could almost never happen.

Although this year has marked a surge in activity by school prayer advocates, AJCongress Executive Director Phil Baum said last week’s votes should “sound the death knell” of Helms’ proposal.

Jewish groups also succeeded in blocking another Helms amendment that would have prevented schools from spending any money on counseling or education programs, for example, if those programs did not paint homosexuality in a negative light.

Many found the language especially troubling in light of the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death among high-school-age homosexuals, and the bill would have tied counselors’ hands at the risk of losing federal funds.

In its place, Congress adopted language that prevents schools from promoting homosexuality. The cutoff of funds also posed censorship problems for a wide range of education advocates who feared Congress would try to link other funds to such restrictive proposals.

Not all of the Jewish community’s attention was focused on negative aspects of the education bill.

Measures to combat hate crimes through grant and educational programs drew widespread support both inside the Jewish community and in Congress.

The bill aims to prevent crimes by encouraging the teaching of tolerance.

It includes model programs for schools to follow.

Lieberman of the ADL praised the initiative for “institutionalizing prejudice-prevention as a means for crime-prevention.”

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