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Religious Right Split On School-Prayer Pledge

CONSERVATIVE religious groups are far from united in support of a Republican proposal for returning organized prayer to public schools by amending the Constitution.

Some think Republicans have failed so far to capture the best language for a school-prayer amendment. Others believe there might be a better way to end what they see as hostility toward God in public schools. Most surprising, there's even open opposition on the religious right.

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``We don't need Newt Gingrich to raise our consciousness about the importance of prayer for our youth,'' said Steven McFarland of the Christian Legal Society.

Forest Montgomery of the National Association of Evangelicals said a constitutional amendment ``may or may not be the best way to address a basic problem in our society - public schools have been sanitized of all mention of God and our nation's religious heritage.''

Mr. Gingrich, the Georgia Republican congressman likely to become House speaker in January, has called for hearings and a House vote by July 4 on a school-prayer amendment. He has said the amendment will allow ``voluntary prayer'' in schools.

Warmest support for a school-prayer amendment comes from the Christian Coalition, a political organization founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. But spokesman Michael Russell said the word ``students'' needs to be in any such amendment's text. Many Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups have supported a 1962 Supreme Court ruling that organized prayer in public schools violated the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

A federal appeals court ruled last week that school graduation prayers are unconstitutional even if a majority of students vote to pray. A panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to bar the annual religious observances in an Idaho school district.

Alaska Democrat declares victory

DEMOCRAT Tony Knowles declared victory as governor after a drawn-out count of ballots showed him ahead by 528 votes over Republican Jim Campbell.

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Only 217 absentee ballots from rural areas remained to be counted from the Nov. 8 election. ``It's one of my biggest margins ever,'' Mr. Knowles, a former two-term mayor of Anchorage known for narrow triumphs, said Friday.

Because the election was so close, the state Elections Division authorized a recount Saturday. According to Friday's tally, Knowles received 87,434 votes, or 41.1 percent of those cast. Mr. Campbell had 86,906, or 40.8 percent.

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