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CASES ON SCHOOL PRAYER AND PORN AWAIT THOMAS

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Cases ranging from permitting school prayer to prosecuting pornography customers await Clarence Thomas when he becomes the nation's 106th Supreme Court justice.

Thomas likely will be sworn in Monday in time to join the court as it takes the bench briefly to announce orders in pending cases then starts a two-week recess.When the court's public argument sessions resume in November, the school prayer and pornography cases will be two of the first dozen cases Thomas will confront.

The court must decide in a Rhode Island case whether invocations and benedictions should be allowed as part of public school graduation ceremonies. And Bush administration lawyers are urging the court to scrap its 1971 decision that created the much-used judicial test for determining whether a law or practice is constitutional.

The test disallows any law or practice that does not have a secular purpose, has the primary effect of promoting or advancing religion or results in excessive government entanglement with religion.

The Bush administration is pushing for a more accommodating standard.

During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas said he had no problems with the court's 20-year-old test.

He also endorsed Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" between government and religion even though Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is a consistent critic of the metaphor.

The pornography case before the court centers on a Nebraska farmer who says he was the victim of government entrapment when he ordered a magazine showing young boys in sexual poses.

A lower court found no entrapment even though the man had been mailed at least 10 inducements over 21/2 years by undercover government agents running parallel "sting" operations.

Thomas will not participate in any of the two dozen cases argued in October unless a new round of arguments is ordered. That is a possibility if the court's eight other members find themselves evenly divided.

Among those cases is an important dispute from Atlanta on racial desegregation in public schools.

Thomas will work from the suite of offices occupied most recently by Justice David H. Souter.

After announcing his intention to retire last June, Justice Thurgood Marshall moved into smaller offices, and Souter and his staff moved into Marshall's old offices.

Each justice is entitled to a staff of seven: four law clerks, two secretaries and a messenger.