The United States Supreme Court now has the opportunity to reinterpret the Constitution on highly volatile government-and-religion issues. Starting Monday, the court will be handing down a spate of decisions over the next several weeks. Among the topics: the hotly contested issue of prescribed ``moment of silence'' for silent prayer in public schools, and ``parochaid,'' public financial support for parochial schools.
A record number of church-state cases for any one year -- seven -- have occupied the justices in recent months. So far, just two have been decided. The court deadlocked 4 to 4 (with one member not voting) on whether the community of Scarsdale, N.Y., should be forced to allow a Nativity scene in a public park. And it unanimously found that a religious evangelical group (the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation) had no constitutional right to deny a minimum wage to members who worked in its secular enterprises, such as farms and repair shops.
In addition to the moment-of-silence case and decisions on a pair of state parochaid laws, the court will also grapple with the issue of whether private employers are required to allow workers time off for sabbath observances. And it will rule on the right of individuals to gain religious exemptions from certain state-licensing requirements.
Many legal experts say the decision on the silent-prayer case could be the most important in several decades relating to the ``establishment'' and ``free exercise'' clauses of the First Amendment. Over the years, the Supreme Court has outlawed public practices that tend to establish religion by favoring one church over another or that in any way inhibit an individual's right to practice his beliefs freely.
In 1962 and 1963 the high tribunal effectively declared vocal prayer in the schools unconstitutional. It ruled in a New York case that state officials could not require students to recite a particular prayer each day, and it outlawed Bible reading in Pennsylvania.
Conservatives and others have lobbied hard for the reinstatement of these practices through congressional legislation and constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, 23 states have passed laws that mandate a moment-of-silence exercise in public educational facilities. Some have been struck down under court challenge.
Alabama's legislation has bounced around in the courts for three years, with appellate tribunals issuing differing opinions. Now the Supreme Court must decide the validity of the statute, which mandates one minute of silence at the start of classes each day for ``meditation'' or ``voluntary prayer.''
Ishmael Jaffee, an Alabama father who is challenging the state law, says the state has put its official seal of approval on organized group prayer in the public schools, in clear violation of the US Constitution. But Alabama officials insist the law does not force a child to pray during the silence period. And they argue that a moment of such meditation does not establish or promote religion, but merely ``accommodates'' it.
The Reagan administration insists that the Constitution permits not only tolerance, but accommodation, of religion. Permitting a student to observe a moment of silence presents no threat to the establishment clause, the government says, because it evinces a ``benevolent neutrality'' in keeping with the ``libertarian spirit'' of both religious clauses.
Last year, the Supreme Court used the ``accommodation'' argument in narrowly ruling that the use of publicly funded religious symbols in a Pawtucket, R.I., Christmas display were allowable under the First Amendment. But a key element in this case was that secular holiday symbols -- reindeers and snowmen -- were placed alongside the town cr`eche.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State say that if the court capitulates on the moment-of-silence issue, the church-state wall of separation could crumble. They are also concerned over two cases that they say establish religion by promoting a partnership between public and parochial schools.
City officials in Grand Rapids, Mich., are asking the Supreme Court to reinstate a program struck down by a lower court that provides remedial classes to more than 10,000 students at 40 nonpublic schools.
At stake in a New York case is a longstanding federal program that sends public-school teachers to religious and other private schools to assist students with educational deficiencies. A New York appellate court ruled last year that this practice was in violation of the establishment clause, reasoning that public funds can only be used for nonpublic-school students if the services rendered are provided at a neutral site, outside the ``sectarian'' atmosphere of a private or parochial school.