High Court Backs School Prayer in 2 of 3 Cases

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Advocates for student prayer in public schools won two cases and lost one at the Supreme Court yesterday, further muddling the national patchwork of rules.

Justices refused to block an Alabama law allowing student-led prayer at extracurricular gatherings, cleared the way for the Louisiana Christian Coalition to meet in school facilities also open to secular groups, and refused to intervene in a decision barring a New Jersey first-grader from reading a Bible story to classmates.

The three unrelated school-prayer decisions were among hundreds of actions announced as the court cleared the way for summer recess, with 10 decisions left to announce next week from the term that began in October.

About half of those cases on which arguments were heard involve immigration issues. The court also is wrestling with the rights of a property owner to develop wetlands in Rhode Island, financial interests of free-lance writers whose published material is redistributed electronically, and whether the federal government may limit spending by political parties.

In other action yesterday, the court:

* Made it far more difficult to win "excessive force" lawsuits against police officers. The justices were unanimous in ruling that the level of force used to quell a protest did not determine if an officer had qualified immunity from being sued, and voted 8-1 that military police need not face trial for the 1994 arrest of animal rights protester Elliot Katz, who was pushed into a van at the San Francisco Presidio during a speech by Vice President Al Gore.

* Closed a loophole in the time limit for state prisoners to challenge convictions in federal courts, ruling 7-2 in a New York robbery case that criminals may not exceed the one-year limit on raising issues in federal court not raised in state appeals.

* Agreed to decide next term the limits on copycat products that exploit alterations in patent applications, using provisions not included in later versions of the application. The case was brought by Festo Corp. of New York, which charged that a Japanese competitor had copied a trademarked machine design.

The prayer cases came on the heels of last week's 6-3 ruling allowing the Good News Club for elementary school children in upstate Milford, N.Y., to attend after-school prayer meetings in classrooms also made available to secular groups.

The American Center for Law and Justice said the Good News Club decision "sends a strong message" and will be invoked under yesterday's order to allow the Christian Coalition to use public schools in St. Tammany Parish, the Louisiana equivalent of a county.

"What the Supreme Court has done is said that the lower court got it wrong, that our client . . . should not be subject to discriminatory treatment by a school district," said Stuart J. Roth, an ACLJ attorney in the case. …