High Court Sends Signals on Church, State Issue

Article excerpt

THE United States Supreme Court continues to weave a zigzag course through the minefield of church-state relations.

In a unanimous decision, the high court on June 7 overturned a lower-court ruling that a New York school district was within its rights to bar religious groups - but not secular ones - from using its property after-hours. At the same time, the justices refused to hear an appeal of a case in which a federal court allowed student-led graduation prayers in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Both decisions were hailed by Christian Right groups as a major victory. "The Supreme Court has clearly stated that religious speech must not be censored from the marketplace of ideas," said Jay Sekulow, counsel for The American Center for Law and Justice, a group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson that argued for the plaintiff in the New York case, Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School District.

Michael McConnell, an expert on church-state relations at the University of Chicago, said although the court's ruling in Lamb's Chapel does not tread new legal ground, it has tremendous practical repercussions. "I don't think people realize how common it is for religious speakers to be suppressed in public schools," Dr. McConnell says. "This decision says public spaces will not be treated as religion-free zones."

But liberal groups took heart from the narrow wording of Justice Byron White's majority opinion in Lamb's Chapel. The court ruling does not open the way for religious displays during school hours, they note. "The court is reaffirming its long-standing rules on separation of church and state," says Steve Green, a lawyer for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which filed a brief supporting the court's decision in Lamb's Chapel.

Mr. Green also cautioned against reading too much into the court's refusal to hear a challenge to a Texas ruling that schools could allow prayers at graduation if the students voted for it. …