High court skirts prayer issue

It would appear the US Supreme Court is determined to sidestep the politically volatile school prayer issue, Monitor legal correspondent Curtis J. Sitomer reports.

Instead, the high court is standing on existing separation-of-church-and-state rulings that ban prayer in the classroom and deferring to lower courts to refine the issue. The court may also be waiting for Congress to vote on a pro-prayer amendment backed by President Reagan. In two separate rulings, the court declined to further step into the much-publicized Mobile, Ala., case. Justice Lewis Powell denied a request that he order lower courts to look into having the Mobile County schools held in contempt for defying his order not to allow teacher-led prayer in the classroom. The court also refused to intervene, and possibly overturn, the ruling of a Pennsylvania court that upheld the firing of an elementary school teacher who regularly read from the Bible and recited prayers in his fourth-grade class.

In the Mobile matter, Justice Powell advised a parent who objected to having his three children exposed to prayers in school to ''seek relief in (an) appropriate lower court.'' In January, when a US district judge in Mobile ruled that the Supreme Court was wrong in outlawing school prayer, he was chided by Justice Powell, who stood behind the ban. The Pennsylvania teacher, Lloyd Fink, was dismissed after refusing to abide by school rules banning recitation of prayer in classrooms. A lower court upheld his firing. The state Supreme Court refused to review it.

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