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Texas governor: Legalize prayer in public schools

By The Associated Press


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AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Rick Perry prayed with students at an East Texas middle school gymnasium last week, saying afterward that he believes organized prayer should be allowed in public schools.

Organized, officially sponsored prayer has been banned in public schools since the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vitale.

Perry said in the Oct. 20 Austin American-Statesman that he wants to make legalizing school prayer a campaign issue. Voters often have asked him about reinstating prayer in public schools since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Perry, a Republican.

“From my personal perspective, I think that a prayer life and a country that respects a higher being, our God, is a stronger country. I believe that, and I think the vast majority of the people in Texas and in this country believe that,” Perry said.

His Democratic challengers for governor — Tony Sanchez and John WorldPeace — also said they supported official school prayer in some form. (Perry, who was the state’s elected lieutenant governor from 1999-2000, was sworn in as governor last December after George W. Bush resigned the office before being sworn in as president last January.)

But not everyone is happy about the idea or Perry's actions at the Oct. 18 school event where the Rev. Roy Duncan said, "We recognize, Lord, that all authority comes from you."

At the end of the prayer, offered "in Jesus' name," Perry, like many of the students standing in bleachers, responded with "Amen."

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said the prayer "is a problem."

"Because the students were required to attend this assembly, the school could be subject to a legal challenge," Ratcliffe said after conferring with education agency lawyers.

And criticism is coming from civil liberties groups.

Current law does not prohibit students from praying in school. It does bar the kind of organized, school-sponsored prayer offered at the Perry event.

"Some people, and it sounds like the governor may be one of them, are confused about the difference between the right to pray in school, which is an absolute right, and the right not to be coerced to pray," said Samantha Smoot, executive director of Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based organization that monitors the political activity of religious-based organizations.

Perry sees this as the right time for a renewed look at school prayer; Smoot believes it is not.

"It does seem that at a time when so many people are striving for religious tolerance and compassion, this is a particularly poor moment to overlook the fact that Texans are not going to all be comfortable with the same prayer," she said.

The governor asked for tolerance.

"I happen to think we all pray to the same God," said Perry. "I'll let the theologians split the hairs and do all those kind of things."

Perry, a member of Austin's Tarrytown United Methodist Church, acknowledged there is a substantial legal hurdle involved in restoring open prayer in public school. But he wants it done.

"Why not?" he said. "They took it out. They can sure put it back in."

Laredo businessman Sanchez, Perry's probable Democratic opponent in November 2002, also favors returning prayer to public school.

Sanchez, a Roman Catholic, acknowledged the difficulty of writing school-prayer legislation, but said, "I think we can get to something people are very comfortable with."

Houston lawyer WorldPeace favors allowing school districts to decide whether to allow prayer at school functions.

Palestine Middle School Principal Peggy Herrington said the decision to include prayer during Perry's visit was made by state Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, who organized the event.

Staples said he believes the prayer was legal.

"I considered that it's a good thing to see people not so reserved in their expression of their beliefs. It was a voluntary, nonstudent-initiated activity," said Staples. "They weren't required to pray."

Peter Montgomery, spokesman for People for the American Way, said the prayer fell into the banned category he called "captive-audience prayer."

"And it's not OK," he said.


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