School Prayer Is Dealt a Blow
High Court Strikes Down Tex. Policy Allowing Student-Led Invocations
By Edward Walsh and Bill Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 20, 2000; Page A01
The Supreme Court expanded its prohibition against religious activity in the public schools yesterday, striking down a Texas school district's policy that allowed an elected student representative to deliver a public invocation before home high school football games.
In a far-reaching 6 to 3 decision, the court ruled that the policy violated the Constitution's required separation of church and state, noting that the election of a student did not alter the fact that the school district was actually sponsoring pre-game prayers.
"The religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
The case extended the court's previous prohibition against clergy-led prayers at school graduation ceremonies to student-led prayers at athletic and, presumably, other official school events--at least in cases where the student is chosen in a school-sponsored election.
The ruling left intact the freedom of students to pray on their own in school, before a meal and at other times. Groups of students also can meet for worship on school grounds, as long as other student clubs are treated similarly.
But the ruling is likely to lead to new challenges to school district policies that allow "moments of silence"--such as the Virginia public schools will institute this fall--and student-led prayers at official functions.
"The significance of this case depends upon the next case," said Douglas W. Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor. "All kinds of draconian things on either side could be predicted based on the opinion."
Coming in the midst of a presidential election campaign, the ruling appeared likely to fuel the political debate over the role of religion in American life.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who strongly backed the school district policy, said he was disappointed by the ruling and continued to support the "right of all students to express their faith freely and participate in voluntary student-led prayer."
Conservative organizations and religious activists attacked the court's ruling. Gary Bauer, one of Bush's defeated GOP primary rivals, said the decision "proves that a majority of the court is at war with the religious tradition of America."
But civil liberties groups hailed the decision. "I think this was a major victory for people who believe that mob rule--majority rule--is not appropriate in matters of religion," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "You don't get to vote on whether there should be religion at a public event, and you don't get to choose whose religion, either."
Jay Alan Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice who argued the case for the Texas school district, said students' free speech was "censored" by yesterday's ruling. But Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who supported the challenge to the school district policy, argued that the Supreme Court had merely "closed a loophole" that many school districts had attempted to use to circumvent the ban on clergy-led prayer.
"The Supreme Court saw through that," he said. "The school district is too intimately involved in this to avoid responsibility."
The decision was also praised by Debbie Mason, whose four daughters attended the Santa Fe district schools and who has been among the most vocal protesters against the district's policy.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company