Student-led prayers in spotlight again


WASHINGTON, March 29 (JTA) — The Supreme Court may finally resolve conflicting rulings on student-led prayers at school-related events, such as graduation ceremonies.

The high court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case involving student-led and student-initiated prayer at high school football games.

In 1992, the Supreme Court barred clergy-led prayers at public school graduation ceremonies, but a year later the justices refused to review a federal appeals court ruling that allowed student-led prayers. That ruling conflicts with another federal appeals court’s decision barring student-led graduation prayers.

Justices appeared perplexed by the Texas school district policy of allowing a student representative to read prayers over the school’s public address system at football games.

The school district maintains this policy does not violate the constitutional ban on establishment of a state religion because the message or invocation can be nonreligious and is decided by the student and not the school.

The parents and students who object to the school policy have argued that it is an imposition of religious practices on the student body. Any speech that is part of an official school event, even if initiated and led by a student, is under school control and therefore the government is really making the choice of whether to include prayer, they say.

Justice David Souter, vocal in his criticism of the policy at the oral hearing, challenged the school district to show how its policy is a neutral one.

If a student chosen by his peers to give a message at the football game includes prayer, and the school “provides a forum and requires attendance of some students, what more do we need?” Souter asked.

“The school district is forcing students to participate in prayer,” he added.

But Justice Antonin Scalia said that it should not be assumed that students would say a prayer every time.

Justice Anthony Kennedy voiced his concern over whether schools could become “forums for religious debates” and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the court must look at whether a similar policy could enter the classroom. Kennedy and O’Connor may hold the swing votes in this case, as they have been in other divisive cases.

Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, has noted that the decision on this case could address the question of whether rights surrounding freedom of speech apply when the speaker has a captive audience.

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