Clinton opposes a prayer amendment, his aides say

November 18, 1994|By Lyle Denniston and Holly Selby | Lyle Denniston and Holly Selby,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- White House aides rushed yesterday to squelch the idea that the administration could support a constitutional amendment in favor of prayer in public schools.

At most, they said, the administration could favor legislation endorsing a moment of silence that students could use for prayer.

Attorney General Janet Reno also urged caution before anything is enacted.

The new Republican leadership of the House is pressing for a change in the Constitution to let public school students pray openly. Ms. Reno suggested that lawmakers keep in mind the diversity of religion in America before they proceed with a school-prayer amendment.

Meanwhile, Roman Catholic Cardinal-designate William H. Keeler of Baltimore yesterday pushed the idea of religion in public schools well beyond what politicians are discussing: He recommended religious instruction as well as student prayers.

Archbishop Keeler made the comment in reply to a question at a bishops conference here.

Administration officials sought to soften Mr. Clinton's position after he appeared to open the door to a constitutional amendment Tuesday. The aministration's moves did not appear to slow the rapid buildup ofsentiment -- at least among Republicans in the House and their leader, Rep. Newt Gingrich -- in favor of acting quickly next year on the issue.

Six weeks ago, a first-term Oklahoma Republican, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., proposed a constitutional amendment to allow public school students to pray -- a move he made just to get a discussion started, according to his staff.

Now, his proposal is emerging as the early favorite among those lawmakers who want to change the Constitution to remove any legal obstacle to school prayers.

"It is kind of a surprise that this is in the limelight so soon," said Steve Jones, Mr. Istook's spokesman. "He thought of this as a long-term project, something for the next year."

But Mr. Gingrich, the next House speaker, suggested this week that a Mr. Istook's legislation could be brought to a House vote by next summer.

An amendment could become a part of the Constitution only if it got two-thirds approval in each house of Congress and the separate approval of three-fourths (38) of the state legislatures.

Mr. Istook's proposal was offered to Mr. Gingrich for inclusion in the GOP "Contract With America." But it was not made part of the contract, which Mr. Gingrich wanted to restrict to 10 other goals.

The Clinton aides said yesterday that the president prefers to show his support for school prayer through legislation that would permit a moment of silence, with no change in the Constitution.

Deputy White House Counsel Joel Klein told the Associated Press: "The president has long supported this moment of silence . . . but we think we can get it done legislatively without going down the constitutional path."

That was the same message aides began giving Wednesday to religious and civil rights groups who had bombarded the White House with phone calls objecting to remarks the president made at a news conference Tuesday in Indonesia, saying he "wouldn't rule out" a constitutional amendment.

Attorney General Reno said she had not read in some time a series of Supreme Court rulings dating to 1962 that declared prayer in public schools to be unconstitutional -- and, in one case, that even a "moment of silence" is unconstitutional when used to endorse prayer.

Those are the decisions that supporters of a constitutional amendment would like to undo by changing the Constitution itself. Although Mr. Istook's proposal is getting the most attention, the lawmaker himself has said the specifics of his idea may be changed as it moves along.

Any effort to amend the Constitution would likely be resisted, especially by liberal groups but also by some mainstream religious denominations. One group gearing up to fight is People for the American Way, a liberal activist organization that strongly supports separation of government and religion.

Among the arguments opponents will make, according to that organization's legal director, Elliot M. Mincberg, is that no constitutional amendment or legislation is needed to allow truly voluntary prayer by students. He noted that many states encourage, or even require, periods for silent prayer or mediation in public school classrooms. Maryland is among those states.

Archbishop Keeler, who heads the National Conference of Bishops, said he would not comment on the specifics of any school-prayer proposals until he had read them. But he added:

"In principle, we would be interested in school prayers as long as they are coupled with religious instruction so that people of all faiths can get instruction in their faith."

William Ryan, the Washington spokesman for the bishops conference, was asked whether Archbishop Keller was making such suggestions for public schools. Mr. Ryan replied that the archbishop meant to refer specifically to public schools, with the religious teaching to be provided at public schools to students of any faith.

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