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
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
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."
Mormon News' coverage of the Santa Fe Texas School Prayer Case
US Supreme Court's Opinion: Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe
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