House urges high court to support prayer before public school sporting events

Wednesday, November 3, 1999

On a voice vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution urging the Supreme Court to declare that prayer before public school sporting events is constitutional.

The House resolution, passed yesterday evening, was prompted by a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last April that barred government-sponsored prayer before public high school football games in Texas. A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit ruled in Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District that public high school football games are not events that need solemnizing and therefore state officials may not encourage or permit school facilities to be used for prayer. State officials have appealed the decision to the full 5th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court has not said whether it will review the 5th Circuit ruling.

The resolution states that “prayers and invocations at public school sporting events are constitutional under the First Amendment to the Constitution; and the Supreme Court, accordingly, should uphold the constitutionality of such practices.” It was quickly debated in a sparsely occupied chamber.

Proponents derided Supreme Court rulings on church-state issues, saying violence, not religion, was corrupting public schools, and lauded the resolution as a way to show constituents that Congress was taking a stand.

During the debate, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., claimed “America was built on Judeo-Christian values” and that kids nationwide were being barred the right to “private prayer” in public schools.

Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., declared that it was “most ironic that while an increasing number of violent crimes have occurred in our nation's schools in recent years, our federal courts have seen fit to restrict the very expression of faith which can play a significant role in providing desperately needed moral guidance to our youth.”

Aderholt has been a strident supporter of legislation calling on greater protections for Christians in the public square. This summer he sponsored an amendment to a juvenile- justice bill that says states have the constitutional authority to place copies of the Ten Commandments in all government buildings, including public schools.

According to Aderholt, students exposed to “a strong religious message, coupled with good sportsmanship instilled by adult role models,” can only become better citizens. Moreover, Aderholt said that he did not believe “that students in our country should have to check their religious beliefs at the school door” and that “our Constitution grants freedom of, not freedom from, religion.”

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., rose in opposition to the resolution. Scott reminded his colleagues that the high court has only ruled that government-sponsored prayer violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Citing the 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vital, Scott said that the “First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the federal government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer that American people can say.”

The boisterous Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, however, said he was sick of hearing “First Amendment mumbo-jumbo” and that the Founding Fathers “never intended to separate God and people.”

“A nation without God is a nation without order,” Traficant said. He added that the Supreme Court needed a “shrink over there” and that “Congress had better start drafting laws” to protect prayer in public places.

In Engel, the Supreme Court reiterated that “Under the [First] Amendment's prohibition against governmental establishment of religion, as reinforced by the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, the government in this country, be it state or federal, is without power to prescribe by law any particular form of prayer which is to be used as an official prayer in carrying on any program of governmentally sponsored religious activity.”

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said he opposed the resolution because “students can pray at games, they do it all the time.” Additionally, he said that the 5th Circuit ruling merely pointed out that the “Constitution bars school-sponsored prayer” and that individuals or groups “cannot use the state to promote one religion over another.”

In June the House considered, but failed to approve, a resolution that urged “all Americans to unite in seeking the face of God through humble prayer and fasting.”

Yesterday's action drew quick criticism from the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“It is a meaningless gesture and Congress cannot overturn Supreme Court decisions, thankfully,” Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United, said. “These votes occur periodically and are little more than opportunities for members like Traficant, who don't understand religious liberty, to get up and spew ignorant statements and then sit down and prepare letters to send to their constituents about how they stood up for God's country here in D.C. This resolution will be promptly forgotten, probably by the end of the week.”