Ark. episode may offer clues to how Clinton will handle school prayer issue

November 27, 1994|By New York Times News Service

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- State Sen. Luther Hardin received a telephone call from the governor one day in June 1985. Bill Clinton wanted to talk about prayer in the schools.

Just days before, the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down an Alabama law, almost identical to the one in Arkansas, that provided for a period of prayer or silent reflection at the start of each school day. In light of that ruling, Mr. Clinton wanted to pass a new bill.

"Governor Clinton wanted to do two things," recalled Mr. Hardin, who was persuaded to sponsor the bill. "He wanted to make sure we were square with the Supreme Court decision and not subject to a lawsuit, and he also wanted to preserve a moment of silence or meditation in the public schools of Arkansas. And that's exactly what we did."

As things turned out, enacting the new law without the word prayer a few weeks later turned out to be an almost entirely uncontroversial affair, barely remarked upon as legislators became consumed in a separate battle over home schooling.

In fact, religious groups who wanted prayer in the schools and civil liberties organizations who opposed it both say they came away from the session feeling that Mr. Clinton had responded appropriately to the Supreme Court ruling.

The 9-year-old episode in Little Rock is a small piece of legislative history, but it takes on new importance because of recent comments by Mr. Clinton about school prayer.

And it provides a useful guide to how he might respond if the issue emerges in Congress next year.

In essence, Mr. Clinton as governor said that he opposed any formal or organized establishment of prayer or religion in the schools, which he said could be coercive; on the other hand, he strongly supported an authorized moment of silence, which he insisted did not amount to any endorsement of religion or coercion.

But in a news conference at the economic summit in Indonesia last week, Mr. Clinton clouded his position when, asked about a constitutional amendment allowing organized prayer in the schools, he said he "certainly wouldn't rule it out." Republicans who will control the new House of Representatives have promised to offer such a measure.

Mr. Clinton's comments dismayed civil liberties groups. And he sought to clarify his position in a Washington news conference Tuesday, in which he appeared to be against the proposed amendment.

"I think that that is inherently coercive in a nation with the amount of religious diversity we have in this country," he told reporters. "I think that would be an error."

What the president has said would be acceptable, however, is the kind of measure he successfully urged the Legislature to pass here in Little Rock.

When Mr. Clinton became governor in 1979, Arkansas had a law authorizing a "brief period of silent prayer or meditation" at the opening of each school day for all pupils "who desire to participate." There is no record of Mr. Clinton's having ever said anything to oppose that law.

In 1985, however, after the Supreme Court ruled that use of the word prayer in the Alabama statute amounted to an endorsement of religion and was thus unconstitutional, Mr. Clinton moved swiftly.

In the new measure, he deleted the word prayer and, indeed, any reference to religion: the state simply allowed "a brief period of silent meditation and reflection with the participation of all students in the classroom who desire to participate."

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