June 19, 2000 21:01
High court's decision won't end debate over student-led prayers
DALLAS, Texas _ The girl who took the microphone at a small-town Texas football field for a pre-game prayer set off a broad national debate. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruling that declared her prayer unconstitutional was very specific.
The court rejected the invocation delivered in Santa Fe _ sanctioned by a public school administration, selected by a majority of students and delivered in front of a crowd that included students who have to be there. But the relative narrowness of the ruling leaves plenty of room for many other kinds of student-initiated, student-led religious expression on public school campuses, said those on both sides of the issue.
Even in Santa Fe, Monday's decision doesn't necessarily end the debate.
"All I can tell you is they won't have a prayer before the football game in Santa Fe set up with a student vote," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center of Law and Justice and one of the lawyers who represented the school district. "Other than that, we're still analyzing all of it."
Other districts with a history of prayer before games, such as Celina in the Dallas area, agreed to abide by the ruling.
But other religious activities developed in accord with previous high court rulings should be unaffected, said David Overstreet, assistant director of field ministries for the National Network of Youth Ministries.
His group promotes See You at the Pole, an annual morning prayer held at many public schools. Since the prayer happens before school starts and each observance is student-led, Monday's ruling will have no effect, he said.
Mark Briskman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, applauded the ruling but said some religious groups are confused about the impact.
"Some people think prayer and God have been removed from the public schools, and that's simply not true," he said. "Any student has the absolute right to pray privately. The problem arises when it becomes organized and school-sanctioned."
The 1,100-student Celina school district in northern Collin County had continued a long tradition of public prayer at football games through last fall. That won't be repeated this year, said Superintendent Ken Burks.
"The board wanted to wait and see what the Supreme Court had decided and indicated they would abide by it no matter what the decision was," he said.
Most other local school districts already had discontinued student-led prayers at football games. But some said Monday's ruling answered lingering questions about this issue.
"We were already in compliance with this ruling," said Karla Oliver, director of community relations for the Duncanville, Texas, school district. "But this seems very final."
Last year, Duncanville, like many districts, observed a moment of silence before football games.
The Aledo district, west of Fort Worth, is in a legal battle centered on the district's decision to edit a student's graduation prayer. But the Supreme Court decision appears narrow and is not likely to affect this court case or the district's practices, said Superintendent Don Daniel.
The district allows only a welcome message before football games and has adhered to earlier court decisions regarding school prayer, Daniel said.
Pre-game prayers aren't an issue for many other districts, including Dallas and Richardson.
Organizations lined up in support or opposition to the ruling. The Texas Association of School Boards, the National Clergy Council, the Council on American-Islamic Affairs and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes were among the groups that opposed the ruling. The National School Boards Association and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism were among the groups applauding the court's decision.
Texas Attorney General John Cornyn issued a statement expressing disappointment with the ruling.
The reaction of non-Christians was mixed. Local Muslims feared that ruling would cause schools to do away with religious activities altogether.
"Our concern is for Muslim students who would like to gather and pray privately in a room at school," said Mohamed Elmougy, regional president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"That's a lot different than prayer at a football game," he said. "But we don't know what impact the ruling will have on this."
A spokesman for the Baha'i Center of Dallas said Baha'is aren't easily offended by prayers outside their tradition.
"Baha'is believe that in reality all the religions are one," Kambiz Rafraf said. "So a Baha'i would not be offended by a prayer to Jesus. We believe prayer is indispensable."
Hindu groups praised the ruling.
"When prayer is imposed on people, like at a football game, it can lose its spiritual significance," said Ajay Shah of San Diego, Calif., spokesman for American Hindus Against Defamation. "It's a broader issue than just who you are praying to. We don't think you should force prayer on anybody."
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(Staff writers Susan Hogan-Albach, Colleen McCain and Katie Menzer contributed to this report.)
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