Cambridge Schools Postpone Decision On Compliance With State Prayer Law

Cambridge schools will not implement the new state law on voluntary prayers in school until the school committee meets tomorrow night.

Cambridge School Superintendent William C. Lannon and his staff decided yesterday "not to comply with the new law until receiving direction from the school committee tomorrow night," Bert Giroux, director of public relations for the city schools, said yesterday.

Civil Rights

Meanwhile, Jon Roberts, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (CLUM), said the CLUM will file a complaint this week, challenging the law as a violation of the First Amendment.

The CLUM will also ask a single judge of the state Supreme Court to block implementation of the law while the full seven judge panel studies its constitutionality.

Roberts said that if procedures go as normal, the law could be revoked in June. "When you look at the case law, it's a sitting duck," he added.

The new law, signed in November by Gov. Edward J. King, requires public schools to allow a student volunteer to offer a daily prayer. Students not wishing to participate may leave the room.

Damned if You Do

Alice Wolf, a school committee member, said yesterday several committee members "have grave concerns about the law, but they also have grave concerns about not obeying the law."

"It seems confusing because we have the federal government saying one thing, and the state government saying another," Bill Mangan '66, a house-master at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, said yesterday.

The Supreme Court abolished compulsory prayer in public schools more than 15 years ago in a case in Texas.

Sara Mae Berman, another school committee member, said yesterday she believes the new law is unconstitutional, and added she wants a court decision for it before she can support it.

Glenn Koocher '71, another school committee member, also said he cannot vote to implement the law unless the Supreme Court first approves it. "I think legislators may have made it loose enough so that it will stand a Constitutional test," he said.

Koocher added he is not sure how the other school committee members will vote.

Church and State

But Roberts said the government cannot promote or inhibit religion without violating the Constitution. A similar state statute, allowing prayer before the start of the school day, was struck down by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1973, he said.

Massachusetts, however, had a statute requiring teachers to announce a minute of silence each day for either prayer or meditation.

The Newton and Beverly school systems have also decided to delay implementing student-led prayer, despite the Massachusetts Education Department's advice to presume the new procedure is valid until the courts rule otherwise.

The Newton School Committee voted last Monday 7-2 to delay compliance until the law is constitutionally solved.

State Rep. A. Joseph DeNucci has complained to the state's attorney general's office about these school committees' policy. "I'm not saying it's a perfect law, but it's not up to individual school committees to determine its constitutionality," he said.

James Nash, spokesman for the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said his Protestant organization had not taken a formal position on the latest school prayer law but had opposed similar measures in the past. He said he personally found the measure "distasteful."

"I believe if you say a student can't vocalize prayer, you're abridging their freedom of speech," the Rev. Paul L. Pierce, pastor at First Baptist Church in Watertown and writer of the statute, said yesterday.

In Twain

Mangan said the law could divide students.

"It puts pressure on students not of a majority belief," Berman said.

"If kids do get up and go in the halls, it will be difficult to supervise them," Koocher added. Supervisors are supposed to remain in the homeroom, he said.

The law specifies only that students may leave the room, Roberts said, adding that a number of teachers have called asking about their own rights.

In Boston, the school superintendent's office last month distributed a circular to all school principals stating the Boston Education Department's policy toward the Law:

* If no student volunteers to give a prayer, the procedure can be skipped;

* The school or teacher may limit the prayer time to approximately one minute;

* No one is required to participate;

* Students wishing to be excused from prayer do not need written consent from parents.

Carmen Scarpa, principal of East Boston High, also said yesterday the law could be very disruptive if a majority of the class chooses to go into the hall during the prayer.

East Boston students will not be permitted to leave the classroom if a prayer is being given. "They're just going to remain silent in their seats," Scarpa said.

The individual teachers will be allowed to implement the law as they see fit, Scarpa said, adding, "No one has given it much thought."