Jewish groups laud court ban on prayer at school games

WASHINGTON — While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that students cannot lead prayers at high school football games, the issue of prayer at public school events is far from settled.

In a 6-3 decision praised by many Jewish groups, the court ruled Monday that student-led and student-initiated prayers violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

But the court refused to use the case to decide whether prayers at graduation ceremonies are permissible.

The ruling did, however, hint at how the justices may view upcoming cases related to religion in the schools. It could also lead to a renewed push for a school-prayer amendment and become a factor in the 2000 presidential campaign. Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, the Texas governor, filed a brief in the case supporting student-led prayer.

Al Gore, on the other hand, approved of the ruling, according to a campaign spokesman. Douglas Hattaway said the vice president feels that in this case, "the prayer was found to be government-sponsored and participation was not truly voluntary."

Most Jewish groups, which have long advocated for the separation of church and state, lauded the decision on football games and said they hope the court will rule the same way on graduation ceremonies.

"I don't see how graduation prayer survives this decision," said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress' legal department, which filed a friend of the court brief in the case.

In 1992, the Supreme Court barred clergy-led prayers at public school graduation ceremonies. The ruling was viewed as a strong reaffirmation of the court's 1962 landmark decision banning organized school prayer.

But a year later, the justices refused to review a federal appeals court ruling that allowed student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies. That ruling conflicts with another federal appeals court's decision barring student-led graduation prayers.

In this case, Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said that the Santa Fe, Texas ,school district's policy of allowing students to lead prayers at football games "establishes an improper majoritarian election on religion, and unquestionably has the purpose and creates the perception of encouraging the delivery of prayer at a series of important school events."

Michael Lieberman, counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, which filed a friend of the court brief in the case, noted the court's concern that minority religious views could be "effectively silenced" by such a policy.

Leonard Cole, national chair for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, agreed. "Whatever the intention of such religious exercises, the net effect is to make children of minority faiths or no religious faith at all feel marginalized," Cole said in a statement.

The Orthodox Union is backing the court's decision, but believes there are certain circumstances in which student-led prayer in school should be constitutionally protected, said the director of the group's Institute for Public Affairs, Nathan Diament.

Diament said he is worried that if the case is interpreted too broadly, people will wrongly understand that schools ought to be "religion-free zones." The Orthodox Union did not file a brief in the case.

The Supreme Court was set to decide this week whether it will hear a case on prayer at graduation ceremonies during next year's term.

Monday's decision may have implications for school vouchers, which provides government funds for students to attend parochial or private schools.

The court rejected the school's use of a student to lead prayer as a "circuit breaker," or a way to show that the school was not directly endorsing prayer. Having a student speaker does not turn public speech into private speech, the court said.

Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor, who are often the deciding votes in close cases, went along with the majority opinion, which gave the decision an added strong signal.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whose dissent was echoed by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, charged that the tone of the court's opinion "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life."

The decision may lead to a renewed push for a constitutional amendment favoring school prayer, said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Saperstein, who also teaches church-state law at the Georgetown University Law Center, said the sweeping legislation would be a "disaster" for religious freedom in America and for the American Jewish community.