A court battle over student-led prayer at football games in Texas could rewrite the rules governing prayer in public schools across America.
In a case that involves competing provisions of the First Amendment, the US Supreme Court today considers whether students are permitted under the Constitution to lead a public prayer before high school football games.
Opponents of the prayer policy at Sante Fe High School in Texas say it violates the separation of church and state by promoting religion rather than merely accommodating it.
Supporters of the policy, including Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumed Republican nominee, counter that students have a free-speech right to lead prayers at games without having to face government censorship.
The case touches some of the most fundamental issues confronting the nation.
On one side are those who believe that prayer in public schools might help inject a greater dose of morality into public education and, by extension, into American life. They say the country has a long history of public prayer, including a reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance.
On the other side are those who feel that prayer is an individual, private matter rather than a subject for public-policy debates. The best way to maintain the purity and power of prayer, they say, is to scrupulously avoid any government interference in such a personal area.
Frequently the issue is portrayed as a debate between people of faith and atheists backed by civil libertarians. But many religious minorities, whose beliefs are sometimes held up to ridicule by society in general, are concerned that greater government endorsement of public prayer could further erode their standing by promoting the dangerous concept of majoritarian worship.
The Sante Fe case arises as a growing number of towns throughout the South are holding local ballot initiatives on prayer in public school. The case provides the court with an opportunity to offer school boards nationwide more precise instructions on how to avoid the constitutional minefield in church-state relations.
"Students, parents, and teachers are confused about what they can and can't do. There is a sense not just in Texas but across the country that while the courts are supposed to be neutral toward religion, they have in fact been hostile," says John Cornyn, the Texas attorney general, who filed a brief in the case with Governor Bush and seven other states.
"The First Amendment was written for more than just the ACLU. It was also written for persons of faith," Mr. Cornyn says.
The central challenge faced by the court is how to achieve the proper balance between competing First Amendment principles. As the Supreme Court stated in a 1990 opinion: "There is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect."
The issue of prayer in public schools is not a new one for the high court. In its most recent ruling in 1992, the court, by a slim 5-to-4 vote, ruled that clergy-led ecumenical prayer at a high school graduation is unconstitutional promotion of religion by a government entity.
One key to the case, analysts say, will be whether the justices view the dispute as a free-speech case or a separation-of-church-and-state case.
Under the Sante Fe policy, the student body each year elects a student to deliver an "invocation" prior to every kickoff at home football games. It is up to the elected invocation leader to decide whether to deliver a prayer or some more general, inspirational comments.
The school district maintains that the election and the invocation leader's choice in selecting the content insulates the district from impermissible entanglement in promoting religious conduct. Instead, they say, any prayer led by the invocation leader is protected free speech that the courts are powerless to block.
Critics say the procedure is a flimsy faade. By granting a single student the right to use the school's public address system to speak to a large gathering at a school-sponsored event, Sante Fe is giving preferential treatment to a particular religious viewpoint, they say.
And the annual election of a student invocation leader does not overcome church-state prohibitions, critics say.
Instead, it raises the specter of the creation of a government-endorsed practice of religion by attempting to transform religion from a private matter of conscience into a collective issue of public policy to be decided by majority vote.
"Religion is a choice that we leave to individuals and families and churches. We don't vote on what the town's religion will be or what its religious practices will be. But in Sante Fe, they are voting," says Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union representing students and parents opposed to the Sante Fe prayer policy.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society