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Bush administration's religion guidelines push prayer in school, Americans United charges. (People & Events).

The Bush administration's new federal guidelines "push the envelope" on religion in public schools beyond what the courts have allowed, Americans United charged last month.

On Feb. 7, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidelines governing religious activities in public schools. Under the terms of a federal education bill passed last year, public school officials must certify that they are in compliance with the standards. Any who fail to meet the government edict face the possible loss of federal education funds.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said some of the new rules are based on a biased reading of the law intended to advance inappropriate religious activities in public schools. Specifically, the guidelines imply that certain types of "student-initiated" prayer and other religious speech at school events are legal when in fact federal courts have split over the question.

"The Bush administration is clearly trying to push the envelope on behalf of prayer in public schools," said AU's Lynn. "Administration lawyers have selectively read case law to come to the conclusions they wanted.

"These guidelines assert that students can lead prayers or give sermons at some school functions," Lynn continued. "The Supreme Court has never allowed that. If the administration tries to cut off federal funding to any school on the basis of these guidelines, that action will surely be challenged in court."

Lynn said Americans United will assist any public school that is unjustly denied federal funding for failing to abide by the guidelines.

AU cited two problematic examples from the guidelines:

* Implying that gray areas of the law have been settled: Federal courts have split over the question of "student-initiated" prayer at school events such as graduation, assemblies and sporting matches. The Supreme Court has struck down school-sanctioned prayer before graduation and athletic events, but the guidelines imply that "student-initiated" prayer is still permissible at these events. This interpretation is apparently based on one federal appeals court ruling; it is not applicable to the entire nation.

* Using inappropriate case law to bolster dubious conclusions: The guidelines cite cases from the college level and cases dealing with government funding of religion to assert that some types of religious activity are legal in public secondary schools. But these cases are not relevant. Courts have allowed more religious activity in colleges and upheld certain types of government funding for religion while still striking down coercive religious activity in elementary and secondary schools.

The "No Child Left Behind" education law passed last year mandates that public schools certify that they are in compliance with these guidelines. Any school that is found guilty of violating them can lose federal funding. Thus, Americans United contends, the guidelines could easily become a weapon used by the Religious Right to harass public schools.

"The threat of loss of funding is a harassment tool designed to force public schools into following these flawed guidelines," AU's Lynn said. "We don't intend to stand for that. Any public school that is unjustly threatened with loss of public funds can count on AU's legal team for help."

The administration apparently allowed Religious Right groups to give input into the guidelines before issuing them late in the day Feb. 7. In a Feb. 12 e-mail bulletin, Ken Connor of the Family Research Council claimed that his group "played a key role in fleshing out the new guidelines."
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Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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