Court limits school prayer
In a far-reaching decision yesterday, it barred student-led prayers at games.
The US Supreme Court continues to adhere to a strict interpretation of the separation of church and state - at least in the area of prayer at public schools.Skip to next paragraph
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In the most far-reaching decision of its kind in nearly a decade, the nation's highest court ruled yesterday that student-led public prayers at high school football games in Texas violate constitutional safeguards against the establishment of a government-favored religion.
The 6-to-3 decision runs counter to an emerging trend in church-state cases in recent years. The tribunal has sought to lower the wall separating church and state by permitting broader interaction between the government and religious organizations.
But not in cases involving school prayer.
The decision marks a major setback to school officials, parents, and students who believe that public expressions of religious faith are needed to inject a level of morality in public education. At the same time, it's a victory for other school officials, parents, and students who believe that religious faith is a private matter that can best be promoted within families and churches, rather than at school-sponsored events.
"It may have extremely far-reaching ramifications to the point that students may have to be constantly looking over their shoulders, second-guessing whether their speech is secular or religious in nature," says Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel of Orlando, Fla., a supporter of school prayer.
In an important First Amendment decision, the court's ruling establishes that public prayers offered by students violate the Constitution when they're delivered in a context that suggests the government is granting preferential treatment to adherents of one faith.
"School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members," writes Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority.
Supporters of the football prayer policy had argued that students have a right to deliver a public prayer of their own choosing at home games. But the court disagreed, ruling that while "private" speech - including public prayer - by individual students is protected by the Constitution, student-led prayer at school-sponsored events is not.
"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 ... encourages public prayer is not properly characterized as private speech," Mr. Stevens wrote.
The decision offers public-school officials and federal judges guidance in where to draw the line on acceptable public prayer at school events. Joining Stevens in the majority opinion were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.