Supreme Court Extends Scope of Religious Rights Ruling Sends Signal That Religious People Must Not Be Denied the Rights or Privileges Available to Nonbelievers in Public Life

Article excerpt

DURING the past two weeks, the United States Supreme Court has fundamentally expanded the scope of religion in public life.

First, the justices ruled that a New York school district could not close its doors to religious groups if it allowed other organizations to use its facilities after-hours. Then the justices refused to hear a challenge to a Texas court decision that students could lead graduation prayers at a public high school. Next, the court unanimously declared that Hialeah, Fla., could not ban the sacrifice of animals by adherents of the Santeria faith. Finally, the court ruled 5 to 4 on Friday that an Arizona school district could be required under federal law to pay for a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student attending a parochial high school.

The impact of the recent rulings will not be known until lower courts and legislatures interpret them in coming years. For example, it is not clear how the decisions will affect voucher programs that pay for students to attend parochial schools. But the signal the court has sent is unmistakable: Religious people must not be denied rights or privileges available to nonbelievers.

"I think clearly the court has turned a corner on religious freedom and religion in public life," says Jim Henderson, an attorney for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice.

Mr. Henderson says that the court rulings will affect a slew of cases that come across his desk every day. In one case, a religious group was not allowed to use a government building after-hours to hold a prayer meeting. In another instance, a high school student was not allowed to display a religious message on a bulletin board that other students could use as they liked. After the Supreme Court's recent rulings, Henderson believes, those bans are now unconstitutional.

Liberal groups are dismayed by this development. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called Friday's ruling "a very bad decision" and said it "is probably the first time in US history that the taxpayers' money has been used to subsidize religious indoctrination."

At the same time, however, Mr. Lynn sought to minimize the ruling's impact. "It's a very narrowly worded decision," he said. "It doesn't appear to open the door for vouchers or other direct parochial-school aid."

The case decided Friday began when the parents of James Zobrest, a deaf student, enrolled him in a Roman Catholic high school in Tucson, Ariz. The Zobrests asked the local school board to supply their son with a sign-language interpreter under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. …


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