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Supreme Court bars student-led prayer at high school football games
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that prayer does not belong in public schools, even if students initiate and lead the prayers.
The court ruled 6-3 in a Texas case that public schools cannot allow student-led prayer before high school football games, a decision that reinforces the wall between church and state erected by the First Amendment.
The ruling came in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, a case involving the Sante Fe Independent School District in Galveston, Texas, which allowed student-initiated and student-led prayer to be broadcast over the public address system before high school football games.
The central question was whether allowing prayer violates the First Amendment's establishment clause, which states that Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
"We recognize the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions' significance," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
"But such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment," he added.
The school district policy
Two students and their mothers filed suit in 1995 and were joined by the American Civil Liberties Union. The students, one Mormon and one Catholic, and their mothers were not named in court papers.
The 4,000-student southern Texas school district, until 1995, had a policy in which students elected student council chaplains to deliver prayers over the public address system before the start of high school football games.
While the lower courts were considering the legal challenge, the school district adopted a new policy under which student-led prayer was permitted but not mandated. Students were asked to vote on whether to allow prayer and to vote again to select the person to deliver them.
A lower court retooled that policy to allow only non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayer. An appeals court found the modified policy constitutionally invalid. The nation's highest court agreed with the appeals court Monday.
Details of the majority ruling
The high court rejected the argument that the pre-football prayer was an example of "private speech" because the students, not school officials, decided the prayer matter.
But Stevens wrote that the students were able to deliver only religious messages deemed "appropriate" by the school district. That meant, he wrote, "that minority candidates will never prevail and that their views will be effectively silenced.
"Even if we regard every high school student's decision to attend a home football game as purely voluntary, we are nevertheless persuaded that the delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship," he wrote.
The other justices in the majority were Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing a strongly-worded dissenting opinion, accused the majority of "distorting existing precedent" to rule that the policy violated the First Amendment, which gives the freedom of speech.
"But 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. Neither the holding nor the tone of the opinion is faithful to the meaning of the Establishment Clause," Rehnquist wrote, noting that the nation's first president, George Washington, himself had called for a day of "public thanksgiving and prayer."
Rehnquist also pointed out that the Santa Fe policy allowed students to discuss purely secular topics, not just prayer, though he acknowledged prayer would be the topic of choice nine times out of 10. He said the choice of topics and speakers was to be made by the students, not the school.
"The students may have chosen a speaker according to wholly secular criteria -- like good public speaking skills or social popularity -- and the student speaker may have chosen, on her own accord, to deliver a religious message. Such an application of the policy would likely pass constitutional muster," he wrote.
Joining him in the dissent were justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs and the school district were not immediately available for comment on the decision.
Previous prayer cases
The current Supreme Court has been steadfast in its objection to large prayer ceremonies in government-funded schools.
In the 1992 Lee v. Weisman case, the court said no to a rabbi's prayer at a public middle school.
The next year, the Supreme Court refused to hear the Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District case, in which the lower court allowed "non-sectarian, non-proselytizing, student-initiated, student-led" prayers at graduation ceremonies.
The Santa Fe case was filed to challenge both the Supreme Court's decision to reject the Jones case and to void the Santa Fe district's policy.
In 1963, the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools.
The case is Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe.
Supreme Court takes on issue of prayers at school football games
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