WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday let stand a lower court ruling in an Alabama case that allowed student-led prayers at football games and other school functions. The high court also ordered a new look at a Louisiana parish ban on after-school prayer meetings on school property.
The court's action yesterday in the Alabama case, which was taken without comment or explanation, appeared to the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics to be at odds with a high court ruling last year on student prayer.
In that Texas case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the high court ruled that student-led prayers over district-owned public address systems were unconstitutional because they gave the appearance of school endorsement.
Despite the confusion, the high court's refusal to hear the Alabama appeal, Chandler v. Siegelman, likely represents its last word on a court ruling that said Alabama students may lead prayers at school activities, including sporting events, assemblies and graduations.
By choosing not to hear the case, the Supreme Court put off deciding what the rule of law will be, an ACLU attorney said.
"The court is saying, 'We don't have time to hear it,' or 'We're not ready to hear it,'" said Liz Hubertz, who represented a DeKalb County high school vice principal, Michael Chandler, and his son Jesse, in arguing that the lower court misinterpreted last year's high court ruling.
The high court had already considered the Alabama case once, sending it back to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of Santa Fe. Last October, the 11th Circuit upheld its earlier ruling, throwing out parts of U.S. District Court Judge Ira DeMent's order that had limited religious expression by students in DeKalb County.
The 11th Circuit said its findings in the Alabama case were not at odds with the Texas case. "If anything, Santa Fe and Chandler are flip sides of the same constitutional coin. Santa Fe condemns school sponsorship of prayer, while Chandler condemns school censorship of prayer," the 11th Circuit ruling said.
After yesterday's action, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor said, "While the U.S. Constitution calls for neutrality toward religion, it does not require, and in fact does not permit, public schools to suppress student-initiated religious speech."
The ACLU and other opponents of the Alabama policy had argued that it represented a threat to the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Critics particularly objected to the broadcast of prayer on school intercoms and from microphones at sporting events or ceremonies — the same activity at issue in Santa Fe.
However, Walter M. Weber, a lawyer at the American Center for Law and Justice, supported the high court's decision. "This is a critical victory for free speech and for religious liberty," he said in a press release. "By not taking this case, the Supreme Court has let stand an important federal precedent ... that schools may not censor out all student religious expression from the halls of our nation's public schools."
The First Amendment protects free speech and the free exercise of religion, but it also forbids government promotion or "establishment" of religion.
In a landmark 1962 decision, Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court outlawed organized, officially sponsored prayers in public schools. In 1992, in Lee v. Weisman, the justices barred clergy-led prayers at public school graduation ceremonies. The following year, Alabama legislators enacted a law requiring public schools to allow student-initiated prayer as long as they do not promote one religion over another and as long as students do not try to convert their classmates.
A federal judge declared the law unconstitutional and barred all non-private prayer, including student-initiated prayer at graduations, assemblies and football games. The 11th Circuit reversed, throwing out parts of the judge's order that limited student religious expression at school events.
At that point the Chandlers first appealed to the Supreme Court. "Truly private prayer neither seeks nor requires a microphone and an audience," they argued then.
The Supreme Court's action on the Louisiana case came one week after the court ruled that a New York school district could not forbid after-school prayer meetings.
The order in the St. Tammany Parish case sent it back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had upheld the ban on after-hours religious services on school property.
"What the Supreme Court has done has said that the lower court got it wrong — that our client, the Louisiana Christian Coalition, should not be subject to discriminatory treatment by a school district," attorney Stuart J. Roth said.
Last week's 6-3 ruling overturned a similar ban in upstate New York. In that case, the majority found that because Milford Central School had let groups with a moral theme, like the Boy Scouts and 4-H, meet on school grounds, it had to allow after-school prayer and Bible study meetings as well.
Roth, of the American Center for Law and Justice, said yesterday's order "sends a powerful message that the law is very clear on this issue: if school officials permit other community organizations to use its facilities after hours, they cannot reject a request from an organization with a religious message."
Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU's Louisiana office, said, "I think the Supreme Court has made a supreme error in this case, that we're going to live to regret."
He said it paves the way for "groups who want to see public schools operated as private Christian academies."
"It runs contrary to a long line of Supreme Court decisions," he said, and will make schools decide whether they will let any groups at all use their buildings after hours.
School district attorneys in Louisiana have said their case was different from the New York case. The Milford policy banned the use of public school property by any religious organization. St. Tammany Parish's policy prohibits the use of school property for religious services or instruction, Harry P. Pastuszek Jr., a lawyer for the school system, has said.
A Louisiana law passed in the 1980s requires that if school districts allow non-curriculum clubs to meet on campus, the districts cannot discriminate against any group — including on the basis of religion.
Last year in Louisiana, the Natchitoches Parish School Board agreed to stop student-led prayer before football games after the ACLU threatened to sue. A similar threat got the Beauregard Parish School Board to stop a program in which churches and other groups adopt classrooms and pray for the students.
"The teaching of religion still belongs in homes and places of worship chosen by parents of children and not in public schools. They've gotten Sunday school confused with public school. And that's not good," Cook said.