D.C. voters may face school-prayer vote

June 30, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A spreading campaign to put prayer back in the public schools, by letting students decide whether to pray, made a new gain yesterday as a local judge ruled that the issue may be put to a vote of the people in the District of Columbia.

Superior Court Judge Jose M. Lopez said the proposed ballot measure here -- the first of its kind in the nation -- was not clearly unconstitutional, so he was not obliged to keep it out of the voters' hands.

The judge said the line between what is constitutional or unconstitutional on varying approaches to school prayer is "still gray."

If the ruling withstands an appeal to the district's highest court, the Court of Appeals, that challengers said they will now pursue, and if the backers of the measure can gather enough signatures behind it, the district's voters could be the first to face the issue.

David M. New, a Washington lawyer and one of the authors of the prayer initiative, said he was "hopeful" that the necessary 16,000 voter signatures could be obtained by a July 11 deadline to get the question on the ballot in November. Otherwise, he said, it could come up for a vote in 1995.

He said that supporters of the idea in Louisiana are also thinking of promoting a ballot measure in that state.

Alabama has a law similar to the student-led proposal in the district. Various school districts around the nation have acted on their own to allow students to initiate prayer at graduation ceremonies and other school events.

Lower court rulings -- some upholding student-led prayer, others striking it down -- have emerged over the past year. While the Supreme Court has ruled that public-school prayers arranged or led by teachers or other school officials are unconstitutional, it has not decided the validity of student-led praying. In fact, it already has turned aside one test case on that issue.

Under the proposal in the District of Columbia, students would be allowed to engage in "voluntary prayer" at school and could initiate prayers at school events, such as assemblies, sporting events and graduation ceremonies.

Challengers of that proposal insist it would mean that schools would have to allow prayer any time an individual student rose at an event and expressed a desire to pray. Two groups, People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union, argued to Judge Lopez that the measure was so obviously unconstitutional that it had to be kept off the ballot.

The judge rejected that argument, saying that "there is no bright-line test" of constitutionality of public school prayers.

Mr. New also disputed the challengers, saying: "I don't think schools are going to become mosques, synagogues or churches."

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