FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
WASHINGTON -- In a hearing before the United States Supreme Court tomorrow, the American Civil Liberties Union will urge the Justices to reject a Texas school district's sponsorship of student-led prayer at football games.
The argument, scheduled to take place at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, 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, is arguing the case before the court on behalf of the ACLU.
The identities of the two families represented in the lawsuit - one Catholic and one Mormon - were sealed by the courts after students were ostracized and subjected to harrassment and intimidation. Their lawsuit alleged that the school district's policy of allowing students to lead prayers at home football games violated the First Amendment by creating a "pervasive religious atmosphere."
But after changing the official prayer conducted by a chaplain to a voluntary student "invocation," the school claimed that any restriction on the prayer chosen by that student would be a violation of religious liberty. The students were asked to vote both on whether to have an invocation and on who would lead it.
"Religion in this country is a matter of individual conscience and is not subject to a majority vote," Griffin said. "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."
In its legal brief, the ACLU said that allowing students to choose a prayer leader by secret ballot does not change the fact that the prayer is a school-sponsored activity and that, in any case, the Constitution exists precisely to protect those with minority views against the tyranny of the majority.
"Everyone knows that what is at stake here is not student free speech," said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law who was the primary author of the ACLU's brief in the case. "This case instead deals with a school's attempt to force the majority's religious viewpoint on all students."
Ruling on the case in 1999, a federal appeals court agreed, saying that official prayers and other "solemnizing ceremonies" before football games violated the Constitutional guarantee of religious liberty for all.
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.
Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the national ACLU, noted that the Supreme Court has repeatedly warned against the dangers of school-sponsored prayers in public schools, not out of hostility to religion but to protect the religious freedom of each student. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan appointee, wrote that state endorsement of religion, "sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community."
The case is Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, No. 99-62. Attorneys Griffin, Shapiro and Laycock filed the ACLU brief on behalf of the "Doe" families, who remain anonymous. A decision in the case is expected by the close of the Court's term in late June.