- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2000

The Supreme Court yesterday extended the school-prayer ban to sports events and beyond, ruling it unconstitutional for schools to allow student-organized prayer at extracurricular events or even to let students vote on the issue.
"Fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote," Justice John Paul Stevens said for the majority in forbidding a Texas school to let students decide if there should be a pre-game message at the school football stadium and, if so, to elect a speaker for an uncensored and unsponsored invocation.
The 6-3 decision came in a nationally watched case that even intruded into presidential politics. The same lineup of justices turned away a separate appeal seeking to reinstate a school board disclaimer that teaching evolution in Louisiana is not meant to disparage "the Biblical version of creation."
"The [prayer] policy is invalid on its face because it establishes an improper majoritarian election on religion, and unquestionably has the purpose and creates the perception of encouraging the delivery of prayer at a series of important school events," said the opinion, which also was signed by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the likely Republican presidential nominee, said he was disappointed at the outcome. He had directed his attorney general to intervene on behalf of those backing voluntary prayer.
"I thought that voluntary student-led prayer at extracurricular activities was right," he said yesterday. His Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, said through spokesman Douglas Hattaway that the court reached the correct decision.
"[Mr. Gore] does support private prayer in school and at school-related events as long as participation is truly voluntary and follows the guidelines … detailing what is suitable within the school environment," Mr. Hattaway said.
Some church groups praised the decision for broadening the gap between church and state; other religious leaders denounced it, but their fury paled before Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's objections.
"Even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the court's opinion. It bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life," the chief justice wrote in a blistering dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The chief justice passed up the chance to read excerpts of his dissent that accused the majority of distorting legal precedents and "venturing into the world of prophesy" by deciding that harm was inevitable.
The justices openly acknowledge religious tradition in a courtroom that features a frieze of "law givers," including Mohammed and Moses, and is studded with representations of tablets bearing the Ten Commandments.
The court marshal always concludes his call to order with the words, "God save the United States and this honorable court," and lawyers admitted to the Supreme Court Bar swear an oath in open court that ends, "So help you God."
The American Civil Liberties Union declared "total victory" in the lawsuit it brought on behalf of a Catholic family and a Mormon family, both cloaked in anonymity because they feared "intimidation" in the Galveston County town of Santa Fe, Texas.
"This decision comes as welcome relief for the families who were ostracized and harassed because they did not care to participate in the majority's choice of prayer," said Anthony Griffin, the Galveston lawyer who argued the case for the "Doe" families.
"Today's ruling should effectively put an end to so-called student-initiated prayer at all school-sponsored events, including graduation," said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the ACLU, which led the fight against the policy.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, who defended the school district's policy before the high court, said the ruling "distorts the First Amendment" by censoring student speech.
"Treating a prayer like it was pornography is creating a very dangerous precedent," Mr. Sekulow said.
"We teach students how important the election process is and then declare that elections in the school are unconstitutional," Mr. Sekulow said. "I think the dissent of the chief justice hit it right on the head. The opinion shows a callous indifference to religious expression, and that is hostility."
The decision drew support from Jewish groups who feared Christian dominance of public prayer, Christian organizations such as the Baptist Joint Committee that argue government sponsorship "demeans the sacred act," and interested lay groups like the National School Boards Association, which called prayer out of place at school events.
"We do not want religion to be a divisive element in our nation's schools," said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the NSBA.
Opponents said the ruling would empower the "prayer police."
"The majority opinion drips of hostility to public religious expression and, thus in my mind, proves that a majority of the court is at war [with] over 200 years of tradition in America," said Gary Bauer, president of American Values and a former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
He called the ban on voting "just bizarre legal reasoning" and said the ruling goes against a national tide toward restoring moral authority.
"The country thinks that that is eroding and the court appears to want to assist the erosion," Mr. Bauer said.
The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, a group of activist religious leaders from many denominations, criticized the decision on the courthouse steps shortly after it was announced.
"The U.S. Supreme Court's decision [denies] students the privilege of calling upon God to watch over them, a privilege the justices enjoy each time they sit to hear cases. We will pray and work for the day when students and parents have their religious liberties restored," Mr. Schenck said.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, praised the outcome, saying "the court today made clear that there is not one Constitution for football players and one for all other public school students."
"This ruling underscores that no public school can make a student feel excluded or outcast because he or she is not of the majority religion," said Charles C. Haynes, director of religious freedom programs at the First Amendment Center.
The evolution case from Louisiana was rejected, without comment by the majority. The chief justice and Justices Thomas and Scalia thought the case should be heard.
"Today, we push the much beloved secular legend of the Monkey Trial one step further," they said, citing the popular name for the famous 1925 trial that took a reverse position. Teacher John Scopes was convicted and fined $100 for teaching evolution when Tennessee law allowed only the teaching of the Bible version of creation.
The Tangipahoa Parish school board voted to require teachers to tell students studying "the scientific theory of evolution" that it was not intended to influence or dissuade biblical creationism or any other concept."
Three parents of students sued in federal court to challenge the policy, and a federal judge blocked its enforcement on grounds the disclaimer had a religious purpose.

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