Bills proposed to allow student-led prayer

Legislative leaders await ruling in Texas case

February 17, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Several legislators are proposing that student-led prayers be allowed in public schools, but General Assembly leaders say the bills are unlikely to win approval this year.

Democratic Del. George W. Owings III and Republican Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, both of Calvert County, filed their bill in response to a high-profile incident at a county high school graduation ceremony last year, when a student's request to lead an invocation was denied after another student protested.

Opposing views

Civil libertarians defended the protester's position, while religious groups took up the cause of students' right to pray.

"That prohibition stemmed from the objection of one person," O'Donnell said yesterday. "The ability of one person to impose their will on the many -- I didn't think that was good."

Prince George's Democratic Del. Kerry A. Hill and Baltimore County Democratic Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., both ministers, have filed a similar bill that would allow students to pray aloud in school and at graduation ceremonies.

"I wanted to open up the conversation to see where the rest of my colleagues were on the issue," Hill said.

Both bills raise constitutional questions about the separation of church and state that are likely to be addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court this year. Legislative leaders said yesterday that such proposals will have to wait until at least next year, after the court has ruled, to have a chance of passage.

`Wait, defer'

"What we'll do is wait, defer," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Regardless of my personal views, we are a nation of laws, and I think it's important that we wait to see what the Supreme Court says on this."

The high court has prohibited school prayer when school officials are involved in organizing it. This year's case, involving Texas high school football games, marks the first time the court will address the issue of voluntary, student-led prayer at school events.

The bill by Owings and O'Donnell would allow any student to deliver a prayer during graduation ceremonies or other school-sponsored events. A teacher, administrator or school board would decide whether the prayer "is consistent with community standards and is appropriate for the event."

Maryland law allows principals and teachers to require a moment of silence during the school day. Owings and O'Donnell said they would go a step further. They argue that students have a constitutional right to pray, particularly if the prayer is voluntary.

`Free exercise'

"What you never hear enough talk about is the `free exercise' clause of the Constitution," O'Donnell said.

The attorney general's office and civil libertarians argue that it is unconstitutional to allow student-led prayers during school events.

"It may be voluntary for the student who's offering it, but it's certainly not voluntary for the students who have to sit and listen to it," said Suzanne Smith of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "It basically says that what the majority wants, the majority gets, regardless of [whether] any minority might object."


In Annapolis

Today's highlights:

House of Delegates meets, 10 a.m., House chamber.

Senate meets, 10 a.m., Senate chamber.

House Economic Matters Committee hearing on HB 2, to offer state-financed health benefits to an additional 19,000 children and pregnant women.

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