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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended June 25, 2000
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Sent on Mormon-News: 19Jun00

Summarized by Kent Larsen

Supreme Court Rules For Mormon Family In School Prayer Case
Associated Press 19Jun00 N1

WASHINGTON, DC -- The US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday for a Mormon and a Catholic family that challenged the Santa Fe Texas Independent School District's policy of allowing student-led prayers before high school football games. The court ruled that these prayers violate the US Constitution's first amendment, which prohibits the "establishment of religion."

Writing for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens said, "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 of the political community."

Justice Stevens continued, "The 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 explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer -- is not properly characterized as private speech."

The decision could have far-reaching effects beyond football games or high school sporting events. The ruling is just the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings on the politically volatile issue. Prayer in government-run school classrooms was first ruled unconstitutional in 1962. But recently, some observers believed that the Court was softening its position on such prayers, and might allow them under some circumstances.

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 "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."

The case was argued before the Supreme Court last March. At that time an ABC News poll said two-thirds of Americans thought students should be permitted to lead prayers like those in Texas. And a nonbinding resolution held in the Texas Republican Primary found that 94 percent of voters approved student-intiated prayer at school sporting events.

In his opinion, Justice Stevens said the court recognizes "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." But he added that "Such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment."

Agreeing with Justice Stevens were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote a 'vigorous' dissenting opinion, saying that the majority's ruling was "disturbing," 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."

See also:

Mormon News' coverage of the Santa Fe Texas School Prayer Case

US Supreme Court's Opinion: Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe
[Requires Adobe Acrobat]


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