School Prayer Is Dealt a Blow
The court "taught us we should always keep the separation of church and state, that just because you're in the majority, that does not give you the right to hurt other people," said Mason, 44, an American Baptist. "There were a lot of people down here who were hurt. This pitted religion versus religion, child versus child. That's not what we want."
The legal and political battle over school prayer has been raging since 1962, when the Supreme Court first banned organized prayer in public classrooms. The last time the court took up the issue was in 1992, when the justices ruled 5 to 4 that faculty-organized, clergy-led prayer at graduation ceremonies was unconstitutional.
This school prayer case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, came from a state where high school football is followed with near religious fervor. It began in 1995 when two families, one Mormon and the other Roman Catholic, challenged the suburban Houston district's policy of allowing students to recite prayers before football games to promote good sportsmanship and student safety.
In response, the school district adopted a new policy calling for student elections to decide whether there should be a statement or invocation before football games and, if so, which student should deliver it.
In yesterday's ruling, the high court rejected the district's argument that the policy of allowing students to decide whether to have a pre-game invocation ensured that the message delivered by the student-speaker would be private in nature and thus protected by the Constitution.
"The delivery of such a message--over the school's public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer--is not properly characterized as 'private' speech," Stevens wrote.
Moreover, Stevens said, the court did not have to wait "until a student actually delivers a solemnizing message under the new policy" because "the simple enactment of this policy, with the purpose and perception of school endorsement of student prayer, was a constitutional violation."
"Government efforts to endorse religion cannot evade constitutional reproach based solely on the remote possibility that those attempts may fail," he added.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, strongly dissented in the case. The majority opinion "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life," Rehnquist wrote.
The chief justice also accused the majority of "venturing into the realm of prophesy" about the kind of messages that would be delivered by students under the policy and said the court's ruling "essentially invalidates all student elections."
"Had the policy been put into practice, the students may have chosen a speaker according to wholly secular criteria--like good public speaking skills or social popularity--and the student speaker may have chosen, on her own accord, to deliver a religious message," Rehnquist wrote. "Such an application of the policy would likely pass constitutional muster."
In another action involving schools and religious belief, the court yesterday let stand lower court rulings that struck down a Louisiana school board policy requiring teachers to tell students that the teaching of evolution was "not intended to influence or dissuade the biblical version of creation or any other concept." Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas also dissented from that decision.
In other rulings announced yesterday, the high court:
* Narrowly upheld a provision of a 1996 law that imposed a 90-day deadline on federal judges to act on requests by state officials to end court supervision of state prisons. Failure to act within the 90 days would automatically end the court supervision of the prison until the judge ruled on the state request.
* Ruled 6 to 3 that the Quechan Indian tribe should have the right to prove its claim that it owns about 25,000 acres of land straddling the Colorado River between Arizona and California and is entitled to additional water from the river. The outcome of that case could have an effect on water use in Arizona and Southern California.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company