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For week ended November 21, 1999 Posted 24 Feb 2001

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Mormon Family's case over prayer at football games reaches Supreme Court (High court to hear Texas prayer case)

Summarized by Kent Larsen

Mormon Family's case over prayer at football games reaches Supreme Court (High court to hear Texas prayer case)
Dallas TX Morning News 16Nov99 N1
By David Jackson: The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The long-running religious freedom dispute between two anonymous families, one of them Mormon, and the Santa Fe Independed School District, located near Galveston, Texas, will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case has evolved from a lawsuit over religious discrimination in Santa Fe High School to a dispute over allowing voluntary, student-led prayer at school events.

The 1995 case started when the two families objected to the way their children were treated in the Southern Baptist dominated town. In one incident, a history teacher seeking to get students to attend a Baptist revival mocked and derided the Mormon student, launching into "a diatribe about the non-Christian, cult-like nature of Mormonism and its general evils," according to an appeals court ruling.

The school district's policies about religion soon became an issue and a Federal judge restricted the school's policies, including a policy that allowed students to voluntarily deliver "messages" or "invocations" before High School football games.

The school district, supported by Texas Governor George W. Bush and Texas Attorney General John Cornyn and the attorneys general of eight other states, appealed, saying that the policy allowing prayers before football games is lawful because the students make the choices. "They elect whether there is an invocation or a message and they elect whoever gives it," said school Superintendent Richard Ownby. "They can elect not to have it or they can elect it to be just a message of encouragement, without any prayer at all."

But attorney Anthony P. Griffin, who represents the two families, disagreed, "It allows our government to impose which God to worship. Government should stay out of that." In court filings, the families said, "The fact that graduation prayer or prayer before football games is led by students does not diminish the pressure to religious conformity. If anything, it may increase it."

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the parents. "Prayers that a school 'merely' permits will still be delivered to a government-organized audience, by means of government-owned appliances and equipment, on government-controlled property, at a government-sponsored event," said the Court's written ruling.

The case has now become entangled in the larger school prayer debate in the U.S. To reduce the impact of the Supreme Court's decisions in the 1960s regarding school prayer, religious conservatives have argued that prayer is a form of speech and protected by the Constitutions guarantee of freedom of speech. In the 1990s, the Court has allowed some kinds of prayer at school - prayer in prayer groups must be allowed if other student clubs are allowed. The Texas-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1992 that student-led invocations or benedictions were permissable at graduation ceremonies and sporting events if they were "nonsectarian and non-proselyting."

Now the school district has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case. But the Court has indicated that it will only give a narrow ruling, confining its decision to "student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games."

The school district is hopeful, noting that the Court could have simply let the lower court's decision against them stand. And the district's attorneys argue that because of freedom of speech, they should prevail, "All you're doing is providing a forum in which students can speak," said the district's attorney Lisa A. Brown. "There's just no evidence in our case that suggests government endorsement of a religious message."

Others hope the Court will affirm the lower court's decision, "We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will . . . support existing precedent that asks schools to be neutral on matters of religion," said Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

And even some religious leaders seem to favor the parents, "It's about the right of every person to worship as they choose and for government in the form of prayer in schools not to cram a particular religious view down their (students') throats," said Phil Strickland, head of the social arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. "It's true the football thing is in a bit of a gray area because it is a voluntary event. But, how voluntary is it to say that to not participate in prayer you find offensive you have to absent yourself from a primary school event?"

See Also:

Justices to Hear Case on Prayer at School Games
New York Times 16Nov99 N1
By Linda Greenhouse

Supreme Court to hear Texas prayer suit
Fort Worth TX Star-Telegram 15Nov99 N1
By Chris Vaughn: Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Supreme Court Will Rule on Student Prayers
Los Angeles Times 16Nov99 N1
By David G. Savage: Times Staff Writer

Supreme Court to review ban on student prayers at football games
CNN 15Nov99 N1

High court to rule on ballgame prayers
Austin TX American Statesman 16Nov99 N1
By Kim Sue &Lia Perkes: American-Statesman Staff

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information