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For week ended April 02, 2000 Posted 24 Feb 2001
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News about Mormons, Mormonism,
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Sent on Mormon-News: 30Mar00

Summarized by Kent Larsen

Mormon and Catholic Families' Football Prayer Challenge Heard
Philadelphia PA Inquirer 30Mar00 N1
By Ron Hutcheson: Inquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in the divisive case brought by a Mormon and a Catholic family challenging prayers before high school football games. The questions by the Supreme Court Justices seemed to indicate that the justices were split on the issue, but that the majority may strike down the school's policy facilitating the prayers.

As expected, lawyers arguing for the Santa Fe Independent School District, located near Galveston, Texas, argued that the prayers are a form of free speech and should be protected by the U.S. Constitution. But lawyers for the two families challenging the school's policy say the policy imposes religion on students. "My clients are Catholic and Mormon, and they're not against prayer," said ACLU attorney Doug Leacock who argued for the two anonymous Texas families. "What they are against is having prayer imposed on their children."

The school district's policy allows students to vote for a student to represent them at the games, and allows that student to deliver an invocation or other message solemnizing the game.

Of the justices, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to sympathize with the school district, and Justice Clarence Thomas, who was silent during the arguments yesterday, is also expected to sympathize with the district. Justice David H. Souter, who was the most vocal in criticizing the school district's position, was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer in criticizing the district. They are likely to be joined by Justice John Paul Stevens. That leaves Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy as the likely deciding votes in the case.

But even O'Connor and Kennedy seemed uncomfortable with the district's position. Kennedy worried that the district policy allowing the students to choose their representative would lead to religious debates in school, as students campaigned for the privilege of representing the school "That is the kind of thing, I think, that our establishment clause wants to keep out of the schools." O'Connor worried about how the policy might be extended to other areas of school life, eventually resulting in student-led prayer in the classroom, "If this mechanism is approved here, the same thing could be done in every classroom, every day," she said. "We have to look at the extended application of this concept."

But Justice Souter's questions expressed the most doubt of the constitutionality of the school district's position. When the school district's Washington lawyer Jay Sekulow, provided by a national conservative organization, claimed that the district's policy was neutral, that the student could express any kind of message, Souter seemed to think the district was being ingenuous, noting that the policy was set up to allow prayer, "We are not required to close our eyes" to that history, he said. And Justice Breyer agreed, "This is a mechanism in which the school district has figured out how to have a prayer."

Justice Souter also worried that the prayers were still a mechanism provided by the district, "We are still faced with a system in which the school or the school district provides the forum," he said. "The school district is forcing children to sit there and participate in this prayer ceremony. . . . It is not merely religious subject matter. It is religious worship." He later said, "The school district is forcing school children to sit there for this prayer ceremony," adding that "is all we need to strike it down."

But Justices Rehnquist and Scalia disagreed. When Griffin, representing the two families challenging the district's policies, presented his arguments, Scalia asked, "Your clients' children don't have to go to football games, Is anyone forced to be a cheerleader or a band member or a football player?" But Griffin got the last laugh, "When you're a teenager, yes," he said, provoking a ripple of laughter in the courtroom. "That's spoken from experience."

See also:

Supreme Court Hears Arguments on School Prayer
News Max (UPI) 29Mar00 N1

Court sharply questions Texas school district's prayer policy
Sacramento CA Bee (Scripps McClatchy) 30Mar00 N1
By Herbert A. Sample: Nando Washington Bureau

Justices weigh high school pre-game prayers
San Jose CA Mercury News 30Mar00 N1
By Ron Hutcheson: Mercury News Washington Bureau

Supreme Court Debates Football Game Prayers
Yahoo! News (Reuters) 29Mar00 N1
By James Vicini


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