WASHINGTON TODAY: Some Dos and Don'ts of School Prayer
Nov. 14, 1997
WASHINGTON (AP) _ School officials nationwide _ especially those in Alabama _ are caught in the middle of what they call religious warfare. What, for heaven's sake, can be done about school prayer?
Thirty-five years after the Supreme Court outlawed organized prayer sessions in public schools, the fallout remains controversial and confusing.
The Clinton administration two years ago sought to calm the waters by issuing detailed guidelines on religious activities in public schools. They helped, but total success proved elusive.
In Alabama, a federal judge now has taken the unusual step of ordering training sessions for teachers and administrators in DeKalb County schools. A school administrator there alleged that students had been coerced into participating in religious activities.
Oddly, religious practices in Alabama courtrooms also have become a politically charged issue. A state judge in Gadsden is fighting to continue having prayers at the start of court sessions and to keep a carved display of the Ten Commandments behind his bench.
Two notions _ both found in the Constitution's First Amendment _ often collide in school-prayer disputes. One says that government should not promote or ``establish'' religion; the other that government should not unduly interfere with individuals' religion.
A list of dos and don'ts for school officials can be gleaned from three decades of Supreme Court rulings and federal legislation that has withstood constitutional challenge. Here's some of the best advice legal experts can offer:
_Students are free to pray at any time, either individually or in groups, as long as their praying is not disruptive.
_Prayers organized, or in some way endorsed, by teachers or school administrators are forbidden. For example, a principal cannot lead a morning prayer over a school's public address system.
_If a school accommodates student clubs, such as providing a classroom for after-school use, a student club that seeks to meet to pray or otherwise worship must be given the same access.
_Students must be allowed to say grace before meals. Again, rules about disruptive behavior apply. The absence of official school policy is a key here.
_If students are allowed to wear T-shirts bearing various messages, those bearing religious messages cannot be banned.
_Teachers may read the Bible or other scripture to students in the course of instructing about religion, but cannot do so to teach a particular religion in an effort to evangelize.
_Courts are divided over the lawfulness of having students offer prayers at graduation ceremonies, and the Supreme Court so far has passed up an opportunity to clarify the issue. Right now, what is allowed depends on where you live.
_Students have a right to distribute religious literature on public school grounds, but school officials may impose reasonable restrictions on the times, places and manner of such efforts.
In Alabama, U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent this month barred prayers over school intercoms during class hours, pre-game prayers on stadium public address systems and some other practices in all of the state's public schools.
Reactions from students and administrators indicates many mistakenly believe the judge's order goes much farther and bars private prayers, the wearing of Christian T-shirts and meetings of religious student clubs. It does not.
Nevertheless, the judge's order is being appealed by county and state officials.
The National Congress of Parents and Teachers, along with The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, has published a parent's guide to religion in public schools. It is full of good advice for those caught up in controversy, including this: ``All parties should treat one another with civility and respect, and should strive to be accurate and fair.''
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Richard Carelli covers the Supreme Court and legal issues for The Associated Press.