A Tale of Two Cases: The Supreme Court's Confusing Decisions

Church & State, July 2000 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Two Cases: The Supreme Court's Confusing Decisions


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.... "

Charles Dickens' famous opening words from A Tale of Two Cities may be a cliche, but they came ineluctably to mind as the Supreme Court term concluded in June.

For church-state separationists, it was indeed the "best of times" at the high court on the issue of government-sponsored prayer at public schools. But on the other great church-state question--tax aid to religion--it was the "worst of times," or at least close to it.

First the good news: The high court's decision in the Texas football prayer case was an extraordinary victory for individual rights, common sense and a strong public school system that welcomes all children.

Justice John Paul Stevens and five of his colleagues rightly concluded that public school officials have no business setting up schemes to force majority-rule prayer on a diverse community. Although the Santa Fe School Board tried to hide its controlling role and claim the devotions were "student-led." Stevens and company saw through the flimsy facade.

Students may have offered the invocations at football games, Stevens concluded, but government and school officials were really calling the shots. "These invocations," said Stevens, "are authorized by a government policy and take place on government property at government-sponsored school-related events."

The court majority was particularly disgruntled that students were allowed to vote on whether to have an invocation, then to choose the classmate to offer it. "[T]he majoritarian process implemented by the District," observed Stevens, "guarantees, by definition, that minority candidates will never prevail and that their views will be effectively silenced."

That's not the way it's supposed to work in America. The justices reiterated their view that officially sanctioned prayer at public school events inevitably sends the message to religious minorities and nonbelievers that they are outsiders, not full members of the community.

"[N]othing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday," observed Stevens. "But the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer."

In a nation where some 2,000 faiths and denominations thrive, ensuring that prayer is a personal choice, not a political football, is not only constitutionally sound but also eminently sensible. Our public schools could not function if they were to become sectarian battlegrounds.

If only the justices had been as wise on the other church-state issue before them. In an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court allowed the

government to provide computers and other resources to parochial schools. …

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