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For week ended March 12, 2000 Posted 24 Feb 2001
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Sent on Mormon-News: 07Mar00

Summarized by Kent Larsen

Student Prayer Again an Issue for High Court
Los Angeles Times 6Mar00 N1
By David G. Savage: Times Staff Writer

SANTA FE, TEXAS -- The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments later this month in the case of a Mormon family and a Catholic family, who sued the Santa Fe Texas School Board over intolerance by the majority Baptist population against their religions. The case has focused on the school board's permitting student-led prayers at school events, including school assemblies and the graduation ceremony to football games.

The issue has been covered many times before by Mormon-News [see for the most recent article.], but this Los Angeles Times article makes the issues clearer. Attorneys for the ACLU, who are representing the Mormon and the Catholic families, say that allowing prayer at school sponsored events violates the Constitution's first amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion, and the Supreme Court has agreed in previous decisions.

But the attorneys for the Santa Fe Independent School Board, representing the feelings of the majority Southern Baptist population, say that their changes to how the decision is made make the prayers voluntary, student-led events, protected by the first amendment's free speech clause. The arguments turn the first amendment against itself.

When a federal judge pressed the district for its promotion of religion in schools, its board voted to have the students decide. The students voted nearly unanimously to hold prayers at football games and graduations, leading to the current arguments before the Supreme Court. In the brief that the school district filed, it says that its policy represents a "neutral policy" that "neither favors nor disfavors religion."

The school district says it is simply giving students a public platform to use as they wish, "It's free speech. We can't inhibit what they want to say," says school board president John Couch Jr. The school board has received support from conservative politicians, including Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush, who has filed a brief as governor of Texas.

But Galveston lawyer Anthony P. Griffin says its a sham, noting that the board wouldn't allow students to use that platform to critcize the school board or mock religion. University of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock, an expert on religion and the law, also finds the logic troubling, "The core of the 1st Amendment is that we don't vote on religion in this country and allow the majority to use the instruments of government to spread the faith."

The history of the case shows how very religious people from minority religions were drawn into a major battle over school prayer. The families originally felt left out when school activities seemed to promote the dominant Southern Baptist religion. The Mormon family was upset when their daughter's junior high school teacher passed out fliers for a Baptist revival. When the girl asked a question about the revival, the teacher asked her what her religion was. On learning that the girl was Mormon, she said that Mormonism was a "non-Christian cult."

After the parents received promises from the school board for change that failed to happen, they took their complaints to the ACLU, which sued the school district in 1995 on behalf of the Mormon and Catholic parents. U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent then ordered the district to adopt new policies prohibiting prayer and religious instruction in class. He allowed students to give a "brief invocation" at graduation and football games, as long as it was "nonsectarian" and "non-proselytizing."

When the school board appealed to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, it ruled 2-1 that the school can't allow students "to read overtly Christian prayers from the stage at graduation ceremonies." It also said there is no need for prayer and invocation at football games. The district is asking the Supreme Court to reverse the rulings, allowing students to give a religious message from the podium. But the Court then restricted the question, saying it would decide, "whether [the school board's] policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violates the Establishment Clause."

Oral arguments in the case, known as Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe, 99-62, will be heard March 29th. Experts believe that the case will be a close one.


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