Public Prayer in Its Place ; Supreme Court Straightens the Church-State Wall

Article excerpt

The issue is heartfelt on both sides: Some parents want to uplift their children through public prayer at government-run schools, while other parents fear their children might be forced to accept someone else's religious beliefs.

But the US Supreme Court has come down decidedly on the side of keeping public schools from sponsoring any "particular" practice of public prayer.

The court's reasoning is instructive for all communities that face such debates. In rejecting officially sanctioned public prayers at high school football games in a Texas town, the 6-3 majority made the point that such a practice runs the danger of excluding some citizens from civic life - even if the motive is not to proselytize.

"It sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority.

That argument may be difficult to swallow in a country that remains predominately Christian. Polls show Americans favor student- initiated prayer at public school events. The court, with an eye more inclined to the Constitution than polls, nonetheless patched up the sometimes-porous wall between church and state.

Even though students would lead the prayers, the court said their words would not be "private" speech, as supporters of the Texas policy argued. …