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NYC Pre-K 'Prayer Break' Initiative Drawing Fire


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New York City could soon be bringing prayer back to the classroom.

It's all part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's initiative to provide free pre-kindergarten programs. It depends in part on the participation of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim schools.

The administration announced that pre-K programs will be allowed to take breaks for "non-program" activities, like prayer, starting in the fall.

Civil liberties groups are already objecting, saying that prayer in a publicly funded classroom violates the U.S. Constitution.

"It's kind of like waving a red flag in front of a bull," said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This seems to be asking for a lawsuit."

De Blasio's program is a way to address his goals of narrowing the wealth gap by saving parents the cost of private pre-K tuition, and jump-starting the academic performance of the city's children.

It began last fall with 53,000 children, and the goal is to boost that number this year to 70,000.

But some religious schools are also critical of the program, with a major Jewish group saying the pre-K program is too restrictive.

Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs for the Orthodox Union, said the city's push for full-day pre-K will leave many Jewish schools behind.

That's because the city's mandated six-hour, 20-minute day, longer than the New York state-mandated five hours, leaves too little time for Jewish instruction, mostly in the Hebrew language.

Meanwhile, Maya Wiley, counsel to the mayor, said the city is doing its best to "penetrate every single community" with the pre-K program.

Wiley, who formerly worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the pre-K program is constitutional even with the prayer break, which taxpayer dollars will not pay for.

"We're not violating any law here," she said. "All we're doing is making sure we can maximize the number of seats that we can create for kids."

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