High Court Issues 2 Rulings of Religion in Public Schools
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High Court Issues 2 Rulings of Religion in Public Schools

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In rulings that partially split the organized Jewish community, the Supreme Court this week decided two church-state cases that could have a major impact on religious activities in the public schools.

In one case, the court, without comment, let stand a lower court ruling allowing students to lead prayers at public school graduation ceremonies under certain circumstances.

That decision Monday, in Jones vs. Clear Creek Independent School District, chipped away at a ruling last year, welcomed by much of the Jewish community, that barred the recitation during public school graduation ceremonies of prayers containing either God’s name or biblical passages.

Since the high court did not hear the Jones case and merely let the lower court ruling stand, its decision sets no precedent and is only applicable in parts of the country bound by the lower court’s rulings.

But many Jewish groups expressed disappointment with the court’s decision not to take the case.

In a second case, Lamb’s Chapel vs. Center Moriches Union Free School District, the court decided unanimously Monday that an evangelical church group on New York’s Long Island could use public school facilities to show a movie with a Christian theme, as long as it was done after school hours.

That ruling came as a disappointment to the leading Jewish defense agencies, but was welcomed by Orthodox and Reform groups.

But the Jones ruling proved disappointing to most in the Jewish community, who had supported the court’s ruling the year before in Lee vs. Weisman. In that case, the court barred a rabbi from reciting a religious invocation during commencement exercises at a Rhode Island public high school.

In the Jones case, however, the court let stand a multi-part test allowed by the lower court. Under this test, prayers could be said at graduation ceremonies if a majority of students approved, if they were offered by a student, if they were non-sectarian and if they did not try to convert other people.


“It’s disappointing,” Samuel Rabinove, legal director of the American Jewish Committee, said of the Jones ruling. “It opens the door to something the majority closed the door to in Lee vs. Weisman.”

The decision “is going to cause trouble for Jewish communities across the country,” said Marc Stern, co-director of legal affairs for the American Jewish Congress.

Steven Freeman, director of legal affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, said that in combination, Monday’s rulings in Jones and Lamb’s Chapel are “reflective of a troubling trend.”

The ADL had supported the losing side in the Lamb’s Chapel case, but Freeman said that the court’s ruling in that case was “not particularly objectionable.”

“What is objectionable,” he said, is that the line is becoming blurred in cases involving religious activity in schools.

Freeman, and others in the Jewish community, said it is reassuring that in its Lamb’s Chapel decision, the court referred to the so-called Lemon test, named after the 1971 case Lemon vs. Kurtzman.

The Lemon test, supported by many Jewish groups, requires all government activity to meet three criteria: Its principle purpose must be secular, its effect must neither enhance nor inhibit religion, and it cannot involve excessive government entanglement with religion.

Some of the court’s more conservative members have expressed unhappiness with the doctrine, but in Monday’s decision, the majority joined an opinion referring to Lemon.

The Jewish community had not been unified in its view of the Lamb’s Chapel case. Supporting the evangelical group were some Orthodox Jewish groups and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement’s congregational arm. The ADL had taken the opposing side.

David Zwiebel, director of governmental affairs for Agudath Israel of America, said his fervently Orthodox group was pleased with the court’s decision in Lamb’s Chapel, because it “could have a very important impact on Jewish institutions, just as it did on the particular church in this case.”

Zwiebel pointed out that religious groups in some communities need to use public school facilities after hours because there are no other facilities large enough to hold some rallies or ceremonies.


“We feel gratified,” said Betty Ehrenberg of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

The decision “undermines any attempt at viewpoint discrimination, which is not acceptable under the First Amendment,” said Ehrenberg, who is executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs.

Nathan Lewin, a Washington attorney who serves as vice president of COLPA, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which represents the interests of observant Jews in courts and legislatures, said his group is pleased at the outcome of the Lamb’s Chapel case, in which it had filed a brief.

Lewin said COLPA is gratified not only that the court “reaffirmed that you can’t discriminate against religious speech,” but also that Justice Antonin Scalia, in his concurring opinion, had spoken out against the Lemon test, which COLPA opposes as too restrictive.

Stern of AJCongress observed that in its ruling, the court carefully pointed out that the activity in question — the showing of a religious film on child rearing — took place after school hours, was not directed at students and was not sponsored by the school.

Stern, whose group had not taken sides in Lamb’s Chapel, called that “very good news.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement that the court’s actions Monday represent “one victory, one setback” for churchstate separation.

His group had supported the religious group in the Lamb’s Chapel case. Saperstein said the court’s decision shows that “religion will be accorded equal protection under the First Amendment to all other forms of expression.”

But Saperstein called the Jones decision “a major disappointment.”

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