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Supreme Court Rejects Some School Prayer

by Vincent Lloyd

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 16, Number 3.

 In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court has struck down a Texas law that allowed students to lead prayers before public school football games. Justice John Paul Stevens in the majority opinion wrote that such activities are "impermissible." Quoting from the Court's 1984 decision in Lynch v. Donnelly, the Court ruled that such activities send the message to 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."

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas, argued in their dissent that the school's policy had not yet been implemented, so it was not clear that the Texas policy would necessarily result in impermissible speech. They also argued that the Court's tone "bristles with hostility to all things religious" and pointed out that even George Washington proclaimed a national day "of thanksgiving and prayer" for the "many favors of Almighty God." Texas Governor George W. Bush filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Santa Fe Independent School District, arguing with other amici that the speech in this case is protected, private speech because "the relevant actors are student speakers with no actual or apparent state authority."

Although situations of prayer in school are rarely clearcut, this case was further complicated by the school district's argument that the student-led prayer leader was exercising his or her right to free speech. There is always tension between claims to free speech, which is explicitly protected by the First Amendment, and government entanglement in religion, which is clearly limited by the Establishment Clause. In this Santa Fe case the Court ruled that the speech in question was, in fact, public, government speech because it took place on government property, and it was authorized by government policy. Moreover, the Court pointed out that cheerleaders, band members, and others are obligated to attend football games, countering the school district's argument that the games are extracurricular, optional activities.

The case that led to the Court's decision was brought by anonymous Mormon and Catholic parents whose children attend school in the Santa Fe Independent School District in suburban Houston. Their objections point out that public prayer is disturbing and even offensive to more than just nontheists. The choice of one type of prayer necessarily excludes those of a slightly different brand of faith, or lack thereof. As Micah White, the newly elected Campus Freethought Alliance president, wrote, "The only outcome of any increase of religion in the schools would be an increase in hatred and anger directed against those students who are not of the dominant religion or lack religion at all."

The right of the minority to be protected from the majority, which is recognized as important but is often unpopular, is critical to sustaining a nation growing in diversity each year. There is no reason that an atmosphere of tolerance cannot be created in high schools.

Vincent Lloyd is a sophomore at Princeton University.

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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