FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
COLUMBIA, SC -- In a letter sent to a local school district today, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina warned that legal action may follow if officials do not rescind a policy encouraging prayer over the school's sound system at football games and other school events.
"It is clear that the purpose of your resolution is to advance prayer in Lexington School District Three and that the effect of this resolution is to give preferential treatment to religion over other beliefs or practices," the ACLU said in a letter signed by affiliate director LaVerne Neal.
If the policy remains in place, Neal said, the ACLU is prepared to take legal action. The school district's own attorneys, Neal noted, have advised them that the policy runs counter to a June 19 Supreme Court ruling on the same issue.
In its ruling, the nation's highest court said that public schools cannot let students lead stadium crowds in prayer over the public address system before high school football games.
"As the Supreme Court made clear, when students use public school property at public school events that are controlled by public school officials, the speech is not the student's but the government's," Neal said.
"Every other school in the area has recognized this and changed their policy accordingly," she added. "But the Batesburg-Leesville school has chosen to mire their community in a battle that they can't possibly win."
Shortly after the Court ruled in June, school districts across the state dropped public prayers at student football games and other school events. But officials at the Batesburg-Leesville school, which is the sole high school within District Three, instead drafted a policy explicitly allowing students to pray using the public address system at football games and other events. Officials later amended the policy to say that students were allowed to "speak religiously or otherwise" and that District officials could not "direct or control the student's message."
The ACLU letter to the school follows:
VIA FACSIMILE AND US MAIL
September 1, 2000
Lexington School District Three
338 West Columbia Avenue
Batesburg, SC 29006
The ACLU of South Carolina, having reviewed your resolution concerning prayer at District Three schools and events, has concluded that it is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Prayers at compulsory and noncompulsory school events, regardless of whether or not the prayers are voluntary, nonsectarian and non-proselytizing, are unconstitutional.
Under the Lemon Test as articulated in Lemon v Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), government activity is only constitutional if it has a secular purpose, its effect neither advances nor inhibits religion and if it does not excessively entangle government practices with religion. We find that your resolution fails all three prongs of the Lemon test.
It is clear that the purpose of your resolution is to advance prayer in Lexington School District Three and that the effect of this resolution is to give preferential treatment to religion over other beliefs or practices. We, for example, find the referenced resolution allots a special time for prayer that it does not set aside for anything else. Furthermore, a student's right to engage in voluntary prayer does not include the right to a captive audience. The Supreme Court has clearly indicated that it will scrutinize the history and substance - not just the form - of whatever policy the school is defending, making it difficult for any legal challenges against the Santa Fe decision to prevail.
Students have the right to pray individually, to discuss their religious beliefs with willing listeners, and to read their Bibles as long as they are not disruptive or neglect other required school activities. The ACLU has always defended a student's right to exercise their religious freedom and will continue to do so.
Your resolution states that the school district "shall not infringe upon a student's right to speak religiously or otherwise at school or school events." The courts have recognized that government policies, like the one proposed, are not necessary to protect the right of the student to pray. See Ingebretsen v. Jackson Public School District, 88 F.3d 274 (5th Cir. 1996). Furthermore, your resolution fails to address how this policy will be carried out so that all students have equal opportunity to speak during school events.
The ACLU wishes to encourage the board members of Lexington School District Three to rescind their resolution. The rescission of your resolution would in no way "take away" the student's right to pray. The students right to free exercise of religion and free speech is already protected under the First Amendment.
In fact, the Supreme Court went out of its way in the Santa Fe (Texas) decision to make clear that "nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day. But the religious liberty protected by the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer."
Students will continue to have the same rights they had before the proposal of this resolution. The question is whether Lexington School District Three will remain in violation of the Santa Fe decision? We all have the student's best interest in mind; therefore, it is the intent of the ACLU to assist you in becoming compliant with the United States Constitution.
In the meantime, the ACLU believes it is crucial to the well being and unity of Lexington District Three residents and students that this board suspends the enactment of the resolution. An immediate response to this letter is requested.
LaVerne M. Neal
ACLU of South Carolina