The Supreme Court reentered the conflict over prayer in school for the first time in eight years by announcing yesterday that it would rule on whether students may lead prayers over the public address system at football games.
Since 1962, when the high court first banned organized prayer in the classroom, the topic of religion in public schools has stirred political passion on both sides. Disputes over invocations at football games have been building in various parts of the country, and yesterday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a Texas school district's appeal of a federal court ruling declaring such prayers unconstitutional.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential front-runner, and officials in eight other states have pressed the high court to overturn the ruling. The U.S. House of Representatives has also weighed in, passing a resolution earlier this month urging the high court to allow prayer at school sporting events.
Last February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that permitting student-led prayers at football games violates the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state. The court said that while student-initiated prayer is sometimes allowed at graduations because of their "singularly serious nature," it has no place in school-sponsored athletics.
As a result, football season in Texas has been marked by protests (including one incident in which students smuggled a public address system into a game to broadcast their prayers), complaints from coaches and countless calls to school lawyers trying to reconcile the federal court decision with the state's long-held custom of prayer at athletic events.
The 5th Circuit ruling conflicts with a decision from another federal appeals court, the 11th Circuit, which said in an Alabama case that not only were school districts free to allow prayer at games, they must permit it, lest they unconstitutionally censor religious views. However the Supreme Court rules in the Texas case, it should clarify just what sorts of pregame activities can occur in Texas and other places where football is a deep community tradition.
The case now before the court began in 1995, when two mothers in Galveston County challenged the the Santa Fe Independent School District's policy of letting students recite prayers before football games to promote good sportsmanship and student safety. The parents also challenged the district's policy of allowing benedictions at high school graduation.
The 5th Circuit ultimately ruled that prayers and invocations were unconstitutional at sports events, but allowed them at graduation ceremonies, provided they were "non-sectarian" and "nonproselytizing."
The Santa Fe district appealed both elements of the ruling to the Supreme Court, but the justices excluded the part dealing with prayers at graduation when they agreed yesterday to hear the case. The district had argued that principals should not have to screen student texts for content and effectively discriminate among religious views.
With regard to prayer at football games, school officials have stressed that because they allow any kind of invocation or secular message to be delivered during the pregame ceremonies, they are not promoting religion. They have also explicitly rejected the difference between prayers at football games and at graduation ceremonies. "The speech permitted under the football policy is analogous to the speech of a valedictorian or salutatorian during a graduation ceremony," district officials said.
It is not clear how broadly the justices will address student prayer when they take up Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe in oral arguments next spring. But by specifically declining to take up the question of graduation prayer, they could end up leaving the law muddled in that area.
The last time the court addressed the topic of prayer in schools, in 1992, the justices ruled 5 to 4 that faculty-organized, clergy-led prayer at graduation was unconstitutional. The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a swing vote, who emphasized that when school officials arrange the prayers, students may feel coerced into particular beliefs, particularly at a graduation event that is important for students to attend.
Since then, some lower courts have allowed student-organized prayer at ceremonies, but there has been no clear guidance from the high court.