Courts says no games on school prayer

Posted: Tuesday, June 20, 2000

the following editorial appeared in today's edition of The Washington Post:

The Supreme Court this week decisively reaffirmed its long-held position that public schools have no business sponsoring prayer. By a 6-to-3 vote, the justices struck down the policy of a Texas school district that permitted students to lead invocations at school football games. The ruling sends a clear message to the school systems elsewhere that have sought through various mechanisms to circumvent the Constitution's prohibition of state-sponsored religion. The court declares that it sees through the tricks and will not tolerate policies that use the power of government to encourage prayer.

When the court held in 1992 that a school district could not invite a rabbi to give a commencement invocation, it left open the question of whether student-led prayer at such events is also prohibited. In an effort to retain prayer, the Santa Fe Independent School District in Texas adopted a system under which students would vote on whether to have invocations at football games. If they voted yes, they would then elect a student to give the invocations. The idea was that, unlike a speaker brought in by the school, such student-initiated prayer would not be government action but simple free speech.

Writing for the majority, however, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that the invocations ``are authorized by a government policy and take place on government property at government-sponsored school-related events.'' The system of elections ``ensures that only those messages deemed `appropriate' under the district's policy may be delivered.'' And the statements themselves are ``subject to particular regulations that confine the content and topic of the student's message.'' Wrote Justice Stevens, ``An objective Santa Fe High School student will unquestionably perceive the inevitable pregame prayer as stamped with the school's seal of approval.''

Opponents of a high wall of separation between church and state often portray it as an attack on religion. But this case illustrates the importance of such a wall as a shield for religion. The suit was brought by Mormon and Catholic students who alleged they were aggressively proselytized by teachers and school officials and whose own religions were denigrated in school. State power, the court reaffirms, must not be arrayed against minority religious groups - even at football games. That's absolutely the right position.



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