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Row brews over prayers in class

Lucy Hodges reports on moves to amend the Constitution to allow "voluntary" prayers in schools, but libertarians say no. The incendiary issue of prayer in American schools, promoted by Newt Gingrich, the Republican man-of-the-moment in Washington, is proving deeply divisive in a nation founded on the separation of church from state.

No sooner had Gingrich, tipped to be next speaker of the House of Representatives, made known his desire for a constitutional amendment to allow schools a minute of "voluntary" prayer each day, than President Clinton had jumped on the bandwagon.

In an unguarded moment in Jakarta, when he was undoubtedly tired and probably jet-lagged, the President said he would be glad to discuss the matter with Republicans. "I certainly wouldn't rule it out. I have always supported voluntary prayer in schools," he said.

All hell broke lose. Immediately Clinton was denounced by Democrats and civil liberties groups. "Amending the Bill of Rights is a grave step that has never before been taken in our nation's history," said Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way, a civil liberties organisation.

Instead of taking his cue from Newt Gingrich, Clinton should be standing firm on the constitutional rights of all schoolchildren, he said.

Such criticism brought in the White House spin-doctors to limit the damage. But it was too late. Religious leaders representing Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Methodists - not to mention Jews and Seventh Day Adventists - flocked to protest on the steps of the Supreme Court.

"Let's not put a secular institution or a secular law between us and the God we all hold dear," said the Rev Elenora Giddings Ivory, of the Presbyterian Church. "It's better to leave it alone and allow children to pray when they feel moved."

That same day Clinton made it clear he was opposed to a constitutional amendment. But he could support legislation, similar to the state law he introduced when he was governor of Arkansas, allowing for "a moment of silence".

The prayer issue was not in the Republicans' 10-point Contract with America drawn up for the mid-term elections. It was only after the November Republican landslide that Gingrich began to talk noisily about school prayer.

Since the furore, he has gone much quieter. Some Republican governors do not like the idea at all. Opponents wonder what kind of prayer would be said, by whom and where. Almost any prayer could offend one group or another.

Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, is sceptical about legislating for voluntary prayer. "Voluntary prayer is an Orwellian phrase. What Gingrich wants is government-sponsored prayer."

But the Christian Right is undeterred. They believe the wording of a constitutional amendment is crucial, but can be worked out, and a consensus seems to be emerging to let students initiate and lead prayers in the classroom.

Principals and school boards would decide whether these prayers were acceptable. "For years our children have had to go to sex education classes that are deeply offensive to us," said Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council. He and others ask why, for example, atheists should not have to sit through a minute of prayer like their children have had to sit through sex education.

The two opposing groups are now mobilising for a battle ahead. The pro-prayer lobby aims to tap television evangelists and radio networks dominated by Christian groups, as well as using traditional techniques such as mailings and telephone trees.

Once, American schools used to have organised daily prayers, but in 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that classroom prayer and scripture reading were unconstitutional, even if they were voluntary. Since 1962 the US Supreme Court has ruled consistently that organised prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment.

However, this has not stopped school prayer making a comeback, particularly in the South. Those in favour of a constitutional amendment, a motley collection of liberals like Marion Barry, mayor of Washington DC., and the Religious Right, may have created a head of steam, but they have a long way to go. An amendment to the Constitution must be approved by two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress and then by the legislatures of three-quarters of thestates.

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