Justices to Rule on Voluntary Student Religious Meetings in Schools

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, re-entering the controversy over religion in the schools, agreed Tuesday to decide whether public high school students may meet voluntarily for prayer and religious discussion in classrooms.

The justices said that they would review a program in Williamsport, Pa., that allowed extracurricular student meetings for non-religious purposes but barred religious gatherings as a violation of the separation of church and state.

The Reagan Administration had asked the court to hear the case, saying that a decision invalidating voluntary student religious meetings could threaten the constitutionality of the federal Equal Access Act. That law, enacted last year, prohibits public high schools that receive federal aid from barring student gatherings because of their religious, political or philosophical nature.

The case (Bender vs. Williamsport Area School District, 84-773) could be heard this spring and decided before the court adjourns in July. But, first, attorneys on both sides must agree to submit briefs and prepare for oral arguments on an accelerated basis.

If the case is not heard this spring, it would be decided during the court term that begins next October.

The justices already have agreed to decide during this term a number of important church-state cases, including the validity of an Alabama law, similar to those in 23 other states, permitting a voluntary "moment of silence" for prayer or meditation at the start of the school day.

The court banned state-organized prayer in the public schools in a controversial 1962 decision. But, in 1981, the justices ruled that a university must allow a student religious group to use campus facilities if other student groups are allowed to use them.

The court noted, however, that college students are "less impressionable" than younger students and would realize that the university was not endorsing religion by permitting its facilities to be used by religious groups.

In the Pennsylvania case, a group at Williamsport Area High School called Petros asked to meet twice a week for prayer and religious discussion during the school's 30-minute activity period. About 25 other student groups--ranging from the Future Homemakers of America to the Ecology Club--meet in classrooms during the same period.

Initially, the religious meetings were approved--but then school officials reversed themselves, citing fears that their action would be interpreted as endorsing religion.

Students Go to Court

The students went to court, charging that their freedoms of religion, speech and association had been violated. A U.S. District Court ruled for the students--but, last year, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia reversed the ruling, holding that the Constitution's prohibition against establishment of religion would be violated if the students were permitted to meet.

Attorneys for the students appealed to the Supreme Court, saying that there should be no prohibition on such self-initiated religious activity when other groups are allowed to use classrooms during the school day.

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