Supreme Court Hears Texas Football Prayer Case

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Church-State Update tracks continuing developments in important federal, state, and local church-state issues. Each item is preceded by an up arrow ([Delta]) or a down arrow ([nabla]), based on the story's implications for separation of church and state and the rights of the nonreligious.

? Supreme Court Hears Texas Football Prayer Case. Surprise, surprise--when the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Texas football prayer case in March, Justice David Souter was outspokenly critical of football game prayer while Justice Antonin Scalia spoke strongly in favor of it. As is often the case on church-state issues, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy are expected to cast deciding swing votes. The case concerns a Texas school district's now-suspended policy allowing student-led prayers on the school stadium's public address system before football games. The original 1995 suit, brought by four students and their parents, challenged both the football prayers and also student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies. A federal appeals court ruled that graduation prayers must be "nonsectarian and non-proselytizing" but struck down football prayers altogether. The high court chose to review only the portion concerning student-led prayers at football games. A decision is expected in June.

[nabla] Supreme Court Ignores Another Good Friday Case. Following its previously reported action that let a Maryland Good Friday law stand, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a case challenging Indiana's law that gives state employees Good Friday off. Taxpayer Russell Bridebaugh had sued claiming that the policy improperly advances Christianity. Court after court dismissed the suit, arguing that Good Friday had been "secularized" by its connection to Easter--an opinion that might surprise many Christians for whom Easter is the most sacred day of their liturgical year! Fourteen states--California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin--make Good Friday a half-or full-day legal holiday Courts have overturned only a few of them.

[nabla] "Religious Liberty" Bills Advance in Three States. Inspired by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) overturned by the Supreme Court in 1997 (see related story), numerous states have passed or are considering equivalent statelevel bills. State RFRAs seek to restore curbs on government power over religious practice set aside in the Supreme Court's 1990 Employment Division v. Smith decision. This spring, one such bill was signed into law by Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne. Another was passed by New Mexico's House of Representatives. Governor Gary Johnson vetoed a similar bill last year but is expected to sign this one if passed. In Alaska, a so-called Religious Freedom Protection Act has been introduced in the legislature.

RFRAs are controversial--and opposed by growing numbers of church-state separationists--because they create special rights for religion qua religion not available in other contexts and because they give religious groups and organizations sweeping exemptions from government oversight, from zoning laws to anti-discrimination laws. On this latter grounds the national American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and other groups left the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, the principal national pro-RFRA coalition. The Council for Secular Humanism has been opposed to RFRA-style legislation from its inception on grounds that it creates special rights for religious persons and organizations not available to other types of entities.

[nabla] Hatch Introduces RLPA in U.S. Senate. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has introduced a Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) in the U.S. Senate. The bill, S. 2081, mirrors one passed last year by the House of Representatives. …