The bill’s supporters hope for another chance.

The steady progress of “equal-access” legislation through Congress halted abruptly last month in the House of Representatives, where the bill fell 11 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for its passage. Supporters began exploring possibilities for a second House vote, while pinning their hopes on eventual Senate passage. The measure enjoys overwhelming support among Christian groups and denominations, including several that opposed President Reagan’s ill-fated constitutional amendment to restore vocal classroom prayer.

The bill would guarantee student religious groups in junior and senior high schools the right to meet on school property on an equal basis with other extracurricular clubs (CT, April 20, 1984, p. 36). It was developed because of discrimination against student religious groups that were meeting at school. Organizations in Washington, including branch offices of the National Association of Evangelicals and Christian Legal Society (CLS), tenaciously built a bipartisan base of support for the bill. It was sponsored by Don Bonker (D-Wash.) in the House and by Mark O. Hatfield (R-Oreg.) and Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) in the Senate. During the crucial, final weeks before the House vote, they were outmaneuvered by a powerful network of opponents.

One equal-access supporter said opponents of the bill—including the American Civil Liberties Union, National Education Association, American Jewish Committee (AJC), and Anti-Defamation League—staged an “unbelievable blitz.” Their chief ally in Congress, U.S. Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), boxed Bonker in by introducing an alternative. He threatened to offer it as an amendment to the equal-access measure. To guard against his bill being “amended to death,” Bonker said, he agreed to bring it up under special rules that limit debate and require two-thirds support rather than a simple majority. This “gag rule” is the same tactic used last year by supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment. A number of congressmen oppose anything introduced in this way. Edwards’s efforts were enhanced by four vehement Washington Post editorials that portrayed the bill as “forcing junior high schools and high schools to give space to every cult that can muster a quorum.”

Jewish groups—among the most effective persuaders on this issue on Capitol Hill—emphasized an opposite concern. They said equal access would establish a “majority religion” in schools and leave minorities out in the cold. The AJC’s Howard Kohr said 1,000 participants at his group’s annual meeting voted “almost unanimously” to work against the bill. “From our committee’s perspective, this doesn’t have any minority group provisions,” he said. “There may not be enough Jewish students in some schools to meet the threshold number for a club.” He shared the concerns of other opponents as well, questioning provisions in Bonker’s bill that allow outside speakers to address religious clubs and enable these clubs to meet during regular school hours.

The National Education Association (NEA) dispatched up to 200 paid lobbyists to visit congressmen. NEA spokesman Joel Packer said religious meetings are “very inappropriate things to have happen in public schools. Actual religious activities are unconstitutional [in that setting].”

Supporters of equal access framed the issue in free-speech terms, pointing out that long-standing court decisions affirm the rights of students to retain their constitutional rights while at school. They see this as an essential correction to several recent decisions by school boards to ban Bible clubs.

Hatfield’s companion bill in the Senate would be likely to pass if it reaches the floor for debate, but upon being sent to the House it could founder in a committee where Edwards has jurisdiction. “It is well known his committee is a burial ground for constitutional issues,” Bonker said, “especially if they have anything to do with religion.”

Despite the loss in the House, Bonker and the bill’s organizational supporters were heartened by the response of the Christian community. Last-minute appeals for grassroots support came from James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” radio program and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, among others. Together, these generated hundreds of calls to congressional offices, in favor of equal access. Nonetheless, the education establishment, civil libertarians, and Jewish groups made superb use of their long-term relationships with Congress.

Sam Ericsson, of CLS, has been advocating equal access ever since court decisions on religious meetings in schools cropped up two years ago. He retains a long-term perspective and dismisses suggestions of defeat. “The principle of equal access is clearly constitutional,” he said. “It is going to win eventually. It would be nice if Congress would write the laws on these issues rather than leaving it to the courts, and then accusing them of usurping the legislative function.”

Because of contradictory lower court rulings, Ericsson said he expects the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the matter. The high court already has ruled that universities must grant equal access to student religious groups, but it has not spoken for or against similar rights for younger students.

“The game’s not over until the Supreme Court rules,” he said, “and we have every confidence it’s going to rule in our favor.”

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