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Dispute Likely to Move to State Level : Pressure for Amendment on Prayer May Be Eased

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court’s school prayer decision probably will reduce pressure on Congress to approve a constitutional amendment permitting organized prayer in the classroom, legislators and representatives of several interest groups said Tuesday.

But, they agreed, the ruling is also likely to step up pressure on state and local governments to enact moment-of-silence laws that meet the court’s requirement that such moments have no religious connection.

Twenty-five states, not including California, already have moment-of-silence statutes, and officials in several of those states, such as Arizona, said they think their laws would pass muster. Officials in states such as Delaware, whose moment-of-silence laws apparently do not meet the court’s criteria, expressed confidence that they could be made acceptable.

However, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, in hailing the court’s decision, said he could not think of a state law that would stand up to challenge. “Virtually all of these statutes are done as an end run around the court’s ban on prayer,” the lawyer, Burt Neuborne, said.

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Leaders of the religious right, enraged by the court’s new ruling, vowed a renewed push for a strong constitutional amendment. “It’s much like the Soviet Union and it’s just a fact that the court is out of focus,” said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a broadcast evangelist and founder of the Moral Majority.

“The founding fathers did not intend separation from God and state--only church and state--and they don’t seem to understand that,” he said.

In the Senate, however, both Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), who backs a prayer amendment, and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), who opposes one, agreed that support for it in Congress is diminishing. A 56-44 Senate vote in favor of an amendment two years ago fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed to send a constitutional amendment to the states for ratification.

“Fence-sitting senators now can say the courts have shown a way out,” a conservative Senate strategist lamented. Federal lawmakers can duck responsibility, he said, because the court has indicated that it will accept properly drafted state laws.

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California Pressure Seen

A prominent California educator, who requested anonymity, said that he now expects great pressure for a moment-of-silence law in that state.

“We have been able to keep a lid on this by saying there is an absolute separation of church and state and teachers must be absolutely neutral in their actions,” the educator said. “Now, the court has cracked the door open, and those who feel strongly about prayer in the schools will be urging school boards and the Legislature to allow a non-defined moment of meditation.”

Rex Lee, the former U.S. solicitor general whose office argued the Reagan Administration’s case in support of the Alabama law, said that the court’s decision “has something in it for everyone.” Lee said that states may now “conclude that a moment of silence, which school children can devote to meditation, prayer or nothing at all, is . . . within the proper sphere of choice.”

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Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland said: “We regret that the court did not agree with our position in the moment-of-silence case. We are pleased, however, that the court did not hold that the moment-of-silence laws now existing in some two dozen states offend the Constitution.”

Wallace Disappointed

Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, in a four-page statement, declared himself “sincerely disturbed and disappointed” by the ruling but said he believes that the “vast majority” of “God-fearing, God-loving” Alabamians thinks the court was in error.

The National Assn. of Evangelicals, a middle-road religious organization, praised the court for striking down the Alabama law while preserving the principle of silent meditation.

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“This is not a big defeat,” said Forest Montgomery, a lawyer for the group, which supports meditation periods in the classroom but not the sort of organized prayer sought by the Moral Majority and others. “The court merely said there are good and bad ways to enact this (moment-of-silence) legislation and Alabama did it the wrong way"--by making prayer a stated purpose.

The Rev. Charles Bergstrom, executive director of the Lutheran Council, which strongly opposes a school prayer constitutional amendment, applauded the decision, predicting that it would “whittle away” at support in Congress for such a measure.

Hair-Splitting ‘Important’

“It may sound like hair-splitting to separate silence and prayer,” he said, “but theologically it’s very important. To be silent is one thing, but for a state or teacher to add comments that there could or should be prayer is a problem because it could mislead people on what prayer is.”

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Cal Thomas, communications director of the Moral Majority, strongly disagreed. “What the court is saying is apparently there is a greater danger from being exposed to God than being exposed to drugs and venereal disease, both of which are rampant in the public schools,” he said.

The law in Arizona, where officials believe they are within the bounds of the new Supreme Court guideline, states: “A period of silence not to exceed one minute in duration will be observed for meditation.” Arizona education official Keven Keller said: “We anticipate the court’s ruling will not have any great impact on us.”

Delaware’s law, by contrast, provides that all public school students “shall be granted two or three minutes to voluntarily participate in moral, philosophical, patriotic or religious activity.”

State Deputy Atty. Gen. Susan Kirk-Ryan conceded that the law apparently does not meet the Supreme Court’s test but added: “The court seems to pave the way for a constitutionally acceptable moment-of-silence statute.”

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