ACLU Hails "Total Victory" for Religious Liberty In High Court's Rejection of School Stadium Prayers

June 19, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — In a triumph for religious liberty, the Supreme Court today ruled 6 to 3 that public schools cannot let students lead stadium crowds in prayer over the public address system before high school football games.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which argued in Santa Fe Independent School District v Doe on behalf of students and their families who were subjected to harassment when they opposed student-led prayers, hailed the decision as a “total victory” for freedom of religion.

In a related decision on religion in public schools, the Court also today refused to review a lower court ruling striking down as unconstitutional a Louisiana school board’s policy requiring that the teaching of evolution be accompanied by a disclaimer mentioning “the biblical version of creation.”

“The Court’s decision today on stadium prayer rests on the principle that the Constitution does not allow school officials to hold elections to decide whether and when students should pray,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU.

“Today’s ruling should effectively put an end to so-called student-initiated prayer at all school sponsored events, including graduation,” he added.

The school district in this case claimed that any restriction on the prayer chosen by an elected student representative would be a violation of the free speech rights of students. The Court today strongly rejected that argument.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said: “The delivery of such a message — over the school’s public address system by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer — is not properly characterized as private speech.”

Today’s ruling marks the first time since 1992 that the Court has considered the constitutionality of school-sponsored prayer. Anthony Griffin, an attorney in private practice in Galveston, argued the case before the Court on behalf of the ACLU.

“This decision comes as welcome relief for the families who were ostracized and harassed because they did not care to participate in the majority’s choice of prayer,” Griffin said. “As the Court recognized today, religious belief and expression is flourishing in our country precisely because America has avoided the mistakes of other countries and resisted the temptation for the government to endorse religion.”

Though alarmists claim that prayer is banned from school, student religious groups are thriving nationwide, with an estimated 10,000 Christian clubs operating in high schools across the country.

Indeed, as Justice Stevens commented, “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 schoolday. But the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer.”

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented in an opinion authored by Rehnquist.

The Texas case is Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, No. 99-62. Attorneys Griffin, Shapiro and Douglas Laycock of Houston filed the ACLU brief on behalf of the “Doe” families, who remain anonymous.

In the Louisiana case, Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education v. Freiler, No. 99-1625, the same 6 to 3 majority declined review, leaving intact the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the disclaimer policy has the effect of promoting religion.

The Supreme Court in 1987 barred states from requiring the teaching of creationism in public schools where evolution is taught, calling such a Louisiana law a thinly veiled attempt to promote religion.

Today’s Supreme Court decision is available online at:

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