There is growing support for legislation guaranteeing the right of students to hold religious meetings at school.

Last month’s lengthy school-prayer debate in Congress failed to produce the votes needed for a constitutional amendment. But it provided a tremendous boost for “equal-access” legislation being considered in both houses.

The speeches and media attention “plowed the ground for us perfectly,” says Dan Evans, legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.). The debate showed that some courts are too strict in prohibiting voluntary religious meetings on school property, he says.

Equal access is considered more substantial—and less symbolic—than President Reagan’s proposed prayer amendment. The legislation addresses a problem plaguing increasing numbers of high school students. Principals and school boards, reacting to court decisions prohibiting the establishment of religion, have forbidden student Bible club meetings and voluntary prayer groups. Critics say this is an overreaction.

In Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the “Petros” club was banned after a school board attorney decided that any religious speech on school grounds is unconstitutional, even if it is voluntary, nonsectarian, and takes place before or after school hours. Lisa Bender, a student who organized the group, filed suit and won in federal court (CT, June 17, 1983, p. 30). Because that decision contradicts other lower court rulings, the issue is likely to come before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court upheld the equal-access principle for college students in Widmar v. Vincent. But the principle has not been expanded to include secondary or elementary school students. This broader application is the intent of two equal-access proposals now before Congress.

The proposed legislation would leave intact the Supreme Court decisions from the early 1960s that prevent state officials from writing or choosing prayers and prohibit teachers from assuming the role of priest or minister in the classroom.

Companion bills sponsored by Bonker in the House and by Oregon Republican Mark Hatfield in the Senate would guarantee secondary school students the right to meet on campus for religious purposes. Hatfield calls situations like the ban on the Petros club “an intolerable perversion of the Constitution.

“There exists today a profound denial of First Amendment rights which is not being addressed in the school-prayer debate,” he says. “Under terms imposed by an increasing number of lower court decisions, students have been permitted to form groups to discuss virtually any subject imaginable except religion. Why is it acceptable to discuss music, to discuss politics, to discuss virtually everything under the sun, except religion?”

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A second equal-access proposal has been offered by Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) and Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). That bill would encompass elementary school students as well as those in junior high and high school.

Denton’s Alabama constituents have been battling over school prayer at the elementary school level in a case recently appealed to the Supreme Court. In that case, agnostic Ishmael Jaffree sued to prevent his grade-school children from being exposed to vocal grace at lunchtime (CT, June 17, 1983, p. 24).

March Bell, an aide to Denton, says that type of court challenge shaped the reasoning behind the senator’s proposal. “Our concern about elementary schools is not equal access so much as it is individual students being picked on,” Bell says. “We want the legislation to clarify that in certain situations it’s hands off the students—on the playground or in the lunchroom, for instance.”

The equal-access concept has attracted wide support in Congress, from liberals who view it as a free-speech issue to conservatives who supported Reagan’s prayer amendment. Bills in Congress need only a simple majority vote to pass, unlike the two-thirds vote required for a constitutional amendment. Both equal-access bills are thought to be popular enough to win.

During his speech opposing the school-prayer amendment, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) indicated why equal-access legislation holds such broad appeal. “If a school has a forum open to all clubs, the phrase ‘all clubs’ should include religious clubs. And if those clubs choose to pray during a meeting, that is their private business. I would support legislation to provide for equal access in school with open forums, providing it had sufficient safeguards to prevent misunderstanding or misuse by those whose intent was to bring official prayer back to the classroom.”

Even Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.), who led the successful floor battle against the school-prayer amendment, is considering support for an equal-access bill. Some see the measure as a chance to save face among constituents who may be influenced by right-wing groups using the prayer amendment vote as election-year cannon fodder.

Moral Majority head Jerry Falwell enthusiastically supports the equal-access approach. “This is the ultimate in freedom of choice, and could be better than the prayer amendment,” he says.

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The equal-access approach has been endorsed by Reagan as well as by religious groups, including some that opposed the prayer amendment. “My administration will continue our efforts to allow government to accommodate prayer and religious speech by citizens in ways that do not risk an establishment of religion,” said the President, following the Senate’s defeat of the school-prayer amendment. “I urge the Congress to consider the equal-access legislation before both houses.…”

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has supported both equal-access legislation and the defeated school-prayer amendment. At least one equal-access proponent sees a providential hand at work in the matter. Lisa Bender Parker, the student who filed the Williamsport lawsuit, is in training with her husband at New Tribes Mission in Kentucky. They live in the district represented by Democrat Carl Perkins, who chairs the House committee responsible for sending Bonker’s equal-access bill to the floor.

Parker has written to Perkins and distributed a letter to his constituents explaining and endorsing the measure. The constituents, in turn, have applied pressure that could speed the bill along.

America’S Top Military Officer Calls Christians To “God’S Army”

It is not surprising that America’s top military officer would make a pitch for national defense funding. But most Americans would not expect the plea to be overshadowed by the general’s call for readiness to serve in “God’s army.” That is what happened when Gen. John W. Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke recently in Dallas.

“Christianity is like the service,” he told an audience of 2,000. “You’re in it no matter what comes up, so you must be ready for action today.” He admonished the crowd to strive for Christ’s standard of service. “Self-control, endurance, and trust constitute the code by which you are judged.”

The 61-year-old U.S. Army general was speaking at the Dallas Leadership Christian Prayer Breakfast, an event that attracts Christians from business, education, government, labor, and sports. It was not the first time Vessey had addressed a large gathering of Christians. Last summer he spoke at the fifty-fifth general convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the denomination in which he holds membership.

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