Court upholds 2 principles in prayer ruling

Sunday, June 25, 2000

Here we go again. Last Monday's Supreme Court ruling on prayer at high school football games is sure to renew charges and counter-charges about God being “kicked out” of public schools.

After the decision was announced, one headline screamed “School Prayer Rejected.” Another story described the court as ruling that “prayer does not belong in public schools, even if students initiate and lead the prayers.”

But that misrepresents what the justices actually decided. The Supreme Court has never — in this or in any other decision — banned prayer from public schools.

On the contrary, in this case the court reaffirmed that “nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day.”

What the court did do was strike down as unconstitutional a Santa Fe, Texas, school-district policy on student-led prayers at sports events. Under the policy, students decided by majority vote whether or not to have an invocation at the games and which student would deliver the message over the course of the year.

The school district argued that this selection process made any prayer offered by the student speaker purely student speech, not school-sponsored prayer.

But a majority of the court disagreed, ruling that the policy's end result is “school endorsement of student prayer” because the process is controlled by the school and “invites and encourages religious messages.”

The court was particularly disturbed by the “majoritarian election on religion” that “encourages divisiveness along religious lines in a public school setting.” Moreover, minority candidates “will never prevail,” and “their views will be effectively silenced.”

You don't have to agree with the outcome in this case in order to appreciate two important First Amendment principles that the court is struggling to uphold.

  • Government endorsement of religion in a public school is a violation of conscience forbidden by the Establishment clause.
  • Religious freedom should never be subject to majority vote.

What should school officials do in light of this ruling?

First and foremost, they should abandon attempts to determine by student election whether or not there will be invocations at school events.

It might be possible to create a “free speech forum” during such events, at which time students would be free to express themselves religiously or otherwise. Of course, this would carry certain risks, since the forum would have to be open to all kinds of speech, including speech critical of religion or the school.

A safer alternative would be to have a “moment of silence,” during which time people could pray, reflect or contemplate in any way they choose.

But the most important action that public schools can take is to develop and implement comprehensive religious-liberty policies spelling out how student religious expression is protected in school.

Under current law, students are free to pray alone or in groups, read their scriptures, discuss their faith, form religious clubs in high schoolsand distribute religious literature subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.

Instead of figuring out ways to do what can't be done, school officials should concentrate on the things that can be done to accommodate religious expression.

After all, what's better for religion and religious liberty: A 60-second “to-whom-it-may-concern” prayer at a football game? Or a school culture that protects genuine religious expression every day of the school year?