School Prayer Just a Start for Some Christian Activists : Religion: Conservatives say they need a constitutional amendment protecting their right to expressions of faith.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Advocates of religious rights quickly tick off the examples.

In St. Louis, "a fourth-grader was put in detention three times for whispering a prayer before eating his meal," one said. Another cited a Pennsylvania case in which a "student's lunch box was confiscated because it included a note that said: 'Jesus loves you.' "

A third recounted the story of an Indiana first-grader who was told he could not read a Bible in school, while an 11-year-old in Virginia was told a week ago that he could not recite a Christmas poem because it made reference to Jesus.

"The intolerance for religion in this country has reached shocking levels," said John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a religious-liberties legal group based in Charlottesville, Va.

"These are not isolated examples," said Gary Bauer, a former Ronald Reagan Administration adviser who heads the Family Research Council. The American Civil Liberties Union "has convinced educators that they cannot allow any religious expression at school," he said.

These complaints of hostility toward religion have circulated widely in conservative and Christian evangelical groups in recent years. Now they are fueling a drive among some activists to draft a broad amendment to the Constitution that would go beyond voluntary school prayer.

The proposal would protect an individual's right to "religious expression," whether it is the high school student who sports a T-shirt that says "Jesus Saves" or the private group that wants to erect a creche in the public square.

"We want to go beyond just the first 30 seconds of the (school) day," said Steven McFarland, legal director for the Christian Legal Society. "I'm persuaded a constitutional amendment could solve a lot of these problems, and it would get broad, grass-roots support."

But other religious-rights advocates strongly dispute the need for something as drastic as a constitutional amendment.

"Usually, these cases involve a misunderstanding. They can be cleared up with a quick letter," said J. Brent Walker, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, who leads a coalition of religious groups that oppose a prayer amendment.

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For example, the Indiana first-grader who was told that he could not bring his Bible to school got an apology shortly after a religious-liberties law firm threatened to sue over the issue.

Nonetheless, the continuing dispute shows the amount of confusion and misinterpretation that envelops school prayer--even about what is legal and what is not--and how much more complicated the issue is than generally acknowledged.

Just six weeks ago, many religious-rights activists said they opposed an initial version of a school prayer amendment offered by incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) because it gave local officials authority to direct a prayer.

"I don't know any religious advocacy group which wants to overrule Engel vs. Vitale," McFarland said, referring to the original 1962 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed official school prayers. "The government has an obligation to keep religious indoctrination out of the classroom."

However, these same activists say they believe that students' rights to express their religious faith is not now protected adequately.

"These school incidents are fueling the fire," said Jay Sekulow, counsel for Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.

Three weeks ago, Gingrich, in a television appearance, cited the St. Louis case as evidence that "it's illegal to pray," even privately, in schools today.

Sekulow cited a recent example of Texas high school students who were told that they could advertise their after-school Bible club only if they dropped any mention of God or Jesus.

"That's why I'd call it a religious-liberties amendment. We need to make an affirmative statement that goes beyond prayer," Sekulow said.

These Christian legal advocates have worked on several versions of a proposed constitutional amendment that they plan to unveil early next year. Republican leaders said they plan to take up the school prayer issue later in the year.

For their part, lawyers for traditionally liberal groups said they believe that these school incidents have been overblown or exaggerated.

Some, such as the St. Louis case, never happened as reported, they said. They also firmly oppose a constitutional amendment on religion as unwise and unnecessary.

But surprisingly, they also said they agree in part with one major contention of conservative activists: that many school principals and teachers believe--wrongly--that any sign of religion in a public school violates the law.

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Indeed, a lawyer for the American Jewish Congress in New York is working with counterparts in the Christian legal movement to draw up a list of permissible religious activities in the public schools.

"We are calling it, 'What Everyone Agrees On,' " said attorney Marc Stern. "For example, we all agree that students may pray individually or in groups, that they may informally discuss religion at school, that they can read a Bible, that teachers cannot reject a student's work because it deals with religious themes and that religious literature can be passed out at school."

In January, Stern added, he hopes to have the list ready to release to schools. It will also make clear what is not allowed. For example, students cannot pray in a way that disrupts others nor may they seek to force others to join them.

The ACLU's national legal director said his group has been wrongly characterized as opposing prayer in any form.

"We have never disputed that children can pray quietly in school and that they can read a Bible during free time," said Steven R. Shapiro. "We have insisted that religion can't be taught as dogma."

A closer look at the oft-cited examples of hostility to religion suggest that some did not happen as reported. Others show that teachers sometimes react too strongly against a religious message. All of them, however, show that Christian legal advocates will intervene quickly when they suspect a child's rights have been violated.

The St. Louis case concerned 10-year-old Raymond Raines who, his mother said, was given detention because he sought to pray over his lunch. When lawyers for the Rutherford Institute heard about the case, they filed a lawsuit against the principal and issued a press release denouncing the school system.

"I know it sounds bizarre, but we have substantial evidence to believe it happened," said Timothy Belz, the St. Louis lawyer working with the Rutherford Institute.

On NBC-TV's "Meet the Press," Gingrich described the situation as "a real case about a real child. Should it be possible for the government to punish you if you say grace over your lunch? That's what we used to think of Russian behavior when they were the Soviet Union."

But school officials said the incident never happened. Rather, they said, Raymond was disciplined for fighting in the cafeteria.

"I can tell you he was not reprimanded for praying," said Kenneth Brostron, the school's lawyer. "Do you think it makes sense that the teachers would look around the cafeteria and target the one student who was praying quietly at his seat?"

Calling the report that Raymond was caught praying "absolutely not true," school Principal Cleveland Young said: "How would I even know about something like that?"

But in the Indiana and Pennsylvania cases, school officials have agreed that teachers may have reacted incorrectly.

In a South Bend, Ind., school, first-graders were told to bring their favorite book from home to read to the class. Bryce Fisher brought his Bible, and when called upon, began to read from the book of Genesis.

His teacher, surprised, stopped him and said it is "against the rules" to read from that book.

Ann Fisher, Bryce's mother, contacted the Becket Fund, a relatively new Washington-based group that aims to protect religious liberties. In short order, the school district conceded that it had erred.

"These are complicated issues, and people aren't sure how to handle them," said Mary Ellen Hamer, an assistant to the school superintendent.

The third case, from Mill Creek, Pa., seems to have resulted from a misunderstanding.

In October, a fifth-grader named Ashley Poleck saw that two young children on her school bus did not have lunch boxes like the others. She persuaded her mother to buy two lunch boxes, and on the bottom, Ashley wrote "Jesus Loves You."

A few days later, two teachers called her aside and told her that, while the gift was a "nice gesture," putting on the religious message was "inappropriate."

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Principal Donald McCloy stressed that Ashley was not "reprimanded" but he agreed that a teacher had told her "it was not a good idea to send out a religious message." When the Rutherford Institute sent a letter to the school, the principal and the teachers apologized to Ashley.

The principal said he and the teachers learned something from the incident. "I wasn't completely aware of this before but the kids have a right to express themselves religiously," McCloy said.

Ten years ago, Congress sought to quell the complaints that prayer and religion were banned from school.

Under the Equal Access Act, "secondary schools" that have chess clubs or similar extracurricular activities must also allow students to meet before school or afterward to pray, read the Bible or discuss religion. And of course, students in all grades have a right to pray quietly at their desks.

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Lawyers on all sides of the issue agree that Gingrich is incorrect to assert flatly that it is "illegal to pray" in school.

However, two legal issues remain in dispute.

One concerns "student-initiated prayer" at a school ceremony.

Clerics may not deliver a religious invocation at a public school event, the Supreme Court ruled two years ago. But since then, lower courts have split on whether a student may deliver such an invocation.

In 1993, a federal appeals court in Texas said student-led prayers at ceremonial events are permissible because they do not involve the government promoting religion. However, the federal appeals court based in San Francisco ruled in November that a student-led graduation prayer is unconstitutional because the school district still "ultimately controls . . . and underwrites" the event. The Supreme Court will have to resolve it.

The second issue is whether religious students are entitled to the same government funding for activities as other students.

In 1990, the University of Virginia refused to subsidize a student-run magazine that offered a "Christian perspective," even though it supported similar student publications espousing other views such as environmentalism, gay rights and animal rights.

In March, a federal appeals court upheld this decision on the grounds that the First Amendment's ban on an "establishment of religion" does not allow the use of public money to promote religion.

But religious-rights advocates argued that the First Amendment does not allow official discrimination against a particular viewpoint.

Early next year, the Supreme Court will hear their appeal (Rosenberger vs. the University of Virginia, 94-329).

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