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.
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.
When the case was argued in March, an ABC News poll found two-thirds of Americans thought students should be permitted to lead such prayers. In Texas's Republican primary election last March, 94 percent of voters approved a nonbinding resolution backing student-initiated prayer at school sporting events. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold such student-led prayer.
Dissenting with the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote: "Even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the court's opinion; it bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life."
At issue in the case was a policy adopted by Santa Fe High School in Texas, in which a student representative was to be selected by fellow students to deliver an "invocation" over the public-address system at the stadium just before kickoff at home football games. Public prayers traditionally have been offered before football games in Santa Fe and in many communities across the country.
But some parents and students objected because they say prayers offered at school-sponsored events amount to state sponsorship of religion. The First Amendment guarantees religious freedom in part by mandating that government avoid any entanglement in matters of faith.
Supporters of Santa Fe's prayer policy counter that the selected student representative determines on his or her own what the content of the invocation should be and whether it will include any religious message or merely a few inspirational thoughts. These supporters say the student representative has a free-speech right - also guaranteed by the First Amendment - to pray over the school's public-address system at school-sponsored events so long as the decision to pray was not directed or encouraged by school officials.
In its decision, the court said that for the school's policy to avoid violating the Constitution, the school must remain neutral in its dealings with students of all faiths. To permit the selection of one student to deliver a prayer is to foster a system of majoritarian worship, the high court says.
Even in defeat, supporters of student-led public prayer see hope. "Religious activity not sponsored by the state does have a place in public school, but in this case the school district did too much to puts its thumb on the scales and tilt the balance," says Steffen Johnson of the Christian Legal Society. "While that's not acceptable, the opinion suggests that a truly even-handed policy is acceptable."
Critics of school prayer, though, saw a more clear-cut statement - a refusal of the court to relax the strict separation laid down by previous courts. "This really sends a clear message that any kind of government-sponsored or government-facilitated religious expression in a public school is unconstitutional," says Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It casts very serious doubt on whether high school graduations may even include prayers."
*Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society