Magazine article The Christian Century

Court Split on School Prayer

Magazine article The Christian Century

Court Split on School Prayer

Article excerpt

ARE PRAYERS at public-school football games a matter of free speech or an unconstitutional form of coercion for nonbelievers attending the games? Lawyers representing both sides of this school-prayer controversy offered oral arguments to U.S. Supreme Court justices March 29. The questions the justices asked suggest that they are divided on the issue.

The case--the first of its kind since the high court ruled in 1992 that school-invited clergy could not give prayers at graduation ceremonies--prompted questions by the justices about definitions of prayer, the possibility of "solemnizing" the sport of football, and the defense of believers of minority faiths. A decision in the closely watched case is expected by early summer.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, argued that the policy of the Santa Fe Independent School District in Galveston County, Texas, does not violate the Constitution's establishment clause, which prohibits governmental establishment of religion. He said the policy, which permits a student elected by the student body to give a secular "message" or "prayer" before football games, could involve a religious statement by a student but that the school district has a "hands-off approach" regarding the content.

Justice David Souter questioned how one might "solemnize" a football game--a notion judged inappropriate by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees the region including the school district. When Sekulow suggested that a message that says "let's encourage good partnership" could be used, Souter replied that such a message would be a "nice speech" but not an invocation. Sekulow, whose organization was founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, argued that if the message did include a prayer, it still would be constitutional because the student, not the school, decides the contents.

Arguing for the Mormon and Catholic families who sued the school district, attorney Anthony Griffin of Galveston, Texas, said the policy is unconstitutional because "it endorses religion." Chief Justice William Rehnquist questioned the difference between student involvement in a required class and an extracurricular football game. "Am I wrong in saying no one is required to go to a football game?" Rehnquist asked.

Justice Antonin Scalia continued the line of questioning, asking if anyone is forced to be a football player, band member or cheerleader. …

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