Restricting student prayer could cost schools federal funds
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON House and Senate negotiators trying to get a compromise education bill to President Bush this year approved a provision that would take federal funds from school districts that unlawfully restrict student prayer.
If passed as part of the overall bill, it would mark the first time that Congress has tied federal funds to compliance with Education Department school-prayer guidelines.
The House-Senate conference committee, which is reconciling differences between bills passed by the two chambers, also approved a measure requiring schools to give the same access to the Boy Scouts as to other groups and another measure requiring that schools give military recruiters the same access as college and business recruiters.
Lawmakers last month approved letting churches and other religious groups compete for federal after-school programs. Yesterday, they approved an agreement allowing religious organizations to teach safety and drug-abuse prevention programs.
Negotiators said they hoped to send the huge education bill to Bush by the end of the year possibly by next month before Congress begins its year-end break.
“My sense is that we’re going to be here until Thanksgiving,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The First Amendment allows informal prayer by students “when not engaged in school activities or instruction.” Students have the right to pray individually or in groups, read the Bible or other scriptures, say grace before meals and pray before tests. School districts can impose rules on the prayers, but can’t prohibit, discourage or encourage them.
According to the Education Department guidelines, students may also speak to others about religious topics and distribute religious literature, but schools may stop students who are using religion to harass others or who are compelling students to listen as a captive audience.
Religious groups must be allowed the same access to schools as other groups.
Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture, the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible as literature and the role of religion in the history of the United States, for example.
Schools also may teach students about religious influences on art, music and literature, and they may teach about religious holidays, but may not observe them.
On Oct. 29, the Supreme Court turned away a challenge to Virginia’s mandatory minute of silence in schools, meaning it remains in force for Virginia’s 1 million public school students.
The justices prohibited organized prayer during class hours in the 1960s and classroom display of the Ten Commandments in 1980. In the past decade the court has banned clergy-led prayer at high school graduation ceremonies and student-led prayer over school public address systems at football games.
Among the issues that remain in the bill are how much money schools will get from the federal government and how lawmakers will define “failing schools,” which would be given more money in exchange for a promise of better student performance. The final bill still must be approved by both the House and Senate.
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