Diametrically Opposed Rulings by Supreme Court on School Prayers

The conviction among many pundits that the U.S. Supreme Court reads election returns has been put into question by two post-election U.S. Supreme Court rulings on religious observances in public schools which are almost diametrically opposed.

In a case earlier this month, the Supreme Court let stand on Nov. 10 rulings by a federal district court and by a court of appeals which held it constitutionally permissible for a South Dakota public school to use guidelines for Christmas and other religious holiday observance in those schools.

In the other case, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional on Monday, the issue involved a Kentucky state law requiring the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom in the state.

In the first case, Florey vs. Sioux Falls (S.D.) School District, the American Jewish Congress and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a joint friend of the court brief for the hearing in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals which upheld the lower court ruling.

MEANING OF SIOUX FALLS DECISION

Nathan Dershowitz, director of the AJ Congress Commission on Law and Social Action, said that the court action letting the practice in Sioux Falls schools continue did not mean that the Supreme Court had approved the Sioux Falls school practice. However, he added, the Supreme Court’s failure to review the case “will undoubtedly encourage other school districts to adopt these and similar notes.”

Jewish organizations have consistently fought all religious observances in the public schools. Some political experts have suggested that most rightwing elements, who contributed to Ronald Reagan’s election victory strongly support prayer in public schools.

Although the ruling against the Kentucky law was a 5-4 decision, the language of the majority was unequivocal. Kentucky officials had sought to avoid constitutional conflicts by two actions.

ISSUE IN KENTUCKY

In one, the officials had added to the law a requirement that the Ten Commandments be listed as serving as “the fundamental legal code of Western civilization and the common law of the United States.” The Supreme Court held that the Ten Commandments is undeniably a sacred text of the Jewish and Christian faiths “and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact.” The ruling declared that “such an avowed secular purpose is not sufficient to avoid conflict with the First Amendment.”

Kentucky officials also tried to avoid constitutional problems by requiring that copies of the Ten Commandments be paid for not with tax funds but with voluntary contributions to the state treasury. A group named the Kentucky Heritage Foundation collected more than $250,000 to buy 15,000 copies.

The Supreme Court held that arrangement did not matter because the posting of the copies was to take place “under the auspices” of the Kentucky Legislature. The high court decision on Stone vs. Graham reversed a lower state court in Kentucky upholding the Ten Commandments posting law. The Kentucky Supreme Court divided 3-3 on the appeal. The effect of the even split legally was to affirm the lower court ruling.

The law had been challenged by a group of foes of various religious beliefs, including a Quaker, a rabbi and a non-believer, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

RESPONSE BY LOCAL SCHOOL BOARDS

If the proposition is dubious that the Supreme Court responds to election returns, the evidence was more persuasive that local school boards respond to court rulings.

One example was a decision by the Board of Education in Waldwick, N.J. which on Monday diluted considerably on earlier policy of holding religious holiday observances in the schools. More than 100 people jammed the Waldwick High School, most of them to assail the revised policy and to threaten reprisals.

The issue was divided the mainly Christian residents of the Bergen County community, pitting Christians against Jews, Moslems and other residents, who believe religious themes have been over stressed in some Waldwick school programs.

PROVISIONS OF REVISED POLICY

The policy was adopted 6-1 after more than four hours of heated debate. It contains a provision that if it is not reaffirmed by the education board of its March meeting, it will be void, The revised policy holds that holidays should be recognized for their educational value and that teachers should be aware of and sensitive to the diverse religious backgrounds of Waldwick residents.

The revised policy permits religious art, music and literature through the school year “if presented as part of an educational program but may not be used to advance or inhibit any religious point of view” and that religious holiday decorations may be displayed but only “as part of a broad cultural study appropriate to the season and should be limited to a reasonable time period.”

Opponents of the revised policy declared in the debate that the education board should abide by the wishes of the “majority” of residents who, they said, were opposed to any change in religious holiday observances in the schools.

Jewish human rights organizations in recent years have made successful efforts to have all religious holiday observances eliminated from public school programs.

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