Religious advocates urge Texas schools to allow prayer rallies

Wednesday, September 8, 1999

A conservative religious group is concerned that public school students in Texas may have trouble participating in a national prayer rally later this month because of a court decision that barred student-led prayer at high school football games in the state.

Debate over the proper place for student prayer at public school events was spurred after a three-judge panel for the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruled in March that a school district policy allowing student-led prayer at football games violated the separation of church and state. In Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District, the panel voted 2-1 that, unlike graduation ceremonies, football games at public high schools were no place for organized prayer.

“The prayers are to be delivered at football games — hardly the sober type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with prayer,” wrote Judge Jacques Wiener for the majority. “Regardless of whether the prayers are selected by vote or spontaneously initiated at these frequently-recurring, informal, school-sponsored events, school officials are present and have the authority to stop the prayers.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the Santa Fe decision and another issued by the 5th Circuit in 1995, Doe v. Duncanville Ind. School District, prohibit student prayer at all public school events except graduation. In a letter sent in early August to Texas school districts, the ACLU warned officials, “It is clear from all cases that, outside of the context of high school graduation, schools may never officially endorse, sponsor or promote prayer.” In Duncanville, the 5th Circuit invalidated a school district policy that permitted student-led prayer before high school basketball games.

Lawyers for the American Center for Law and Justice, a religious, conservative group founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, are concerned that Texas school officials may, in light of the Santa Fe ruling, attempt to stop students from taking part in “See You at the Pole” prayer rallies set for Sept. 15. The rallies, at which Christian students gather at school flagpoles to worship, started in 1990 with the encouragement of the Texas Baptist Convention.

According to the National Network of Youth Ministries, the prayer rallies have “grown to God-sized proportions,” in which “3 million students from all 50 states participate.” The Texas Baptist Convention said the prayer rallies were intended to mobilize student-prayer efforts and spur the creation of more Bible clubs at public schools.

In a two-page letter sent yesterday to school districts throughout Texas, the ACLJ claimed that despite the 5th Circuit's ruling in Santa Fe, “students do have the right to engage in student-led, student-initiated prayer at school — including a national student prayer rally scheduled for next week.”

The ACLJ criticized the letter the Texas ACLU sent to school districts in August as misrepresenting the Santa Fe decision. According to the ACLJ, the 5th Circuit “only prohibited school-sponsored student prayer activity at sporting events.” Moreover, the ACLJ cited a temporary restraining order issued on Sept. 3 by U.S. District Judge Sim Lake that barred Santa Fe school officials from punishing a student for leading prayer before a high school football game.

ACLJ officials said in their letter that they wanted “students and school administrators to know that we will defend the free speech rights of students in Texas and in public school districts around the country.”

A national group that represents atheists, however, has criticized the flagpole rallies as organized efforts to encourage Christian prayer on public school grounds.

Ron Barrier, a spokesman for the nonprofit group American Atheists, described the flagpole rallies as a “type of primitive totem-revivalism.”

“The reason for totem pole prayers is to evangelize and to recruit,” Barrier said. “Neither are totem pole prayers student-led or student-initiated. The whole scenario is conjured up by adults, and kids are [being made into] puppets in an intellectual religious war which is being waged in the schoolrooms of our children. These actions are parasitical, not enlightening.”

Barrier added that “the real issue is whether or not students have the right to impose themselves on others. The students at football games in all actuality are more concerned with the number of observers and participants than the sincerity of their religious requirements. It is our position that no religious group has the right to co-opt a public accommodation simply because they have numerical advantage at a given moment.”

Cobly May, the ACLJ's director of government affairs, said that American Atheists has failed to understand the nature of the flagpole rallies.

“The group's thinking overlooks the reality that the students in those high schools voluntarily initiate and conduct these events and that they want to be involved and that administrators and other officials have nothing to do with the events,” May said.

Additionally, May said that the Santa Fe decision “did not touch upon voluntary student activity.”

“It is certainly appropriate and covered by the First Amendment as well as state constitutions for students to gather at the beginning of the school year to solemnize the academic year and to ask God to bless the schools' students, teachers, administrators and the communities.”

In 1995 and again in 1998, President Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley issued guidelines on student religious expression in the public schools. According to those guidelines, which were created with the help of numerous civil rights groups and lawyers, “students may also participate in before or after school events with religious content, such as 'see you at the flagpole' gatherings, on the same terms as they may participate in other noncurriculum activities on school premises.”

Charles Haynes, First Amendment Center senior scholar and co-author of Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum, says that current understanding of the law permits student-prayer groups on school grounds.

“The fact that outside groups encourage students to attend has no bearing on the constitutionality of the event,” Haynes said. “To cite another example, many youth pastors urge students to form Bible clubs under the Equal Access Act. But that does not make those clubs illegal or unconstitutional as long as the clubs follow the guidelines of the act.”