Ruling allowing student-led prayer reinstated

Saturday, October 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA – A federal appeals court has reinstated a ruling that permits student-led prayer in public-school assemblies and classrooms, after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered in June that the ruling be reconsidered.

The ruling, first issued in July 1999 and reinstated by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, allows students to initiate and lead prayer in a classroom, assembly or football game, as long as school officials do not force them to do so or participate in any way.

It upheld the practice in the schools of DeKalb County, Ala., in which students led Christian prayers over the intercom and before graduations and other school events.

The decision angered opponents of school prayer, who believe that the lower court defied the Supreme Court. But the court and its supporters said that the Constitution allows all forms of private prayer, even those that opponents may believe the Supreme Court outlawed earlier this year.

"Private speech endorsing religion is constitutionally protected – even in school," said the decision, written by Senior Circuit Judge James C. Hill. "Such speech is not the school's speech even though it may occur in the school. Such speech is not unconstitutionally coercive even though it may occur before nonbeliever students."

The Supreme Court had set aside the lower court's ruling after restricting school prayer in a case involving the Santa Fe, Texas, school board.

The 6-3 decision said that a student-led prayer before an official school event such as a football game was not truly private and could not be permitted, particularly when the school selects the student to lead the prayer, provides a public-address system for the prayer and sets aside time.

The Santa Fe decision was criticized by many religious leaders and conservative organizations and has led to a wave of Christian prayers by students and adults in the stands at high school football games across the South.

A week after the Santa Fe decision, the Supreme Court ordered the 11th Circuit to reconsider its Alabama ruling. It did not, however, order a completely new opinion or say that the appeals court must decide the case differently.

In its decision Friday, a three-judge panel of the appeals court said that its earlier ruling was consistent with the Santa Fe decision and did not need to be rewritten. The court, which has jurisdiction in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, said that the Santa Fe decision did not prohibit voluntary, individual prayer, and that therefore voluntary prayer in front of others was permitted.

The opinion says that the Constitution "does not permit the state to confine religious speech to whispers or banish it to broom closets. If it did, the exercise of one's religion would not be free at all."

Critics of school prayer said the court had deliberately repudiated the Supreme Court's implicit desire for a new opinion.

"The appeals court is really thumbing its nose at the Supreme Court's order," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "If you read these sentences literally, it really says that any student can demand to pray before or during any school event, and over the PA system. They act as if the Santa Fe case is a narrow, technical ruling."

He said the high court would never have set aside the Alabama decision if the court agreed with it.

But Bill Pryor, the attorney general of Alabama, whose office urged the appeals court to reinstate its ruling, said there was no reason the two rulings could not coexist.

"This is the flip side of Santa Fe," he said Friday. "For the same reason a school cannot sponsor a prayer or religious speech, it also cannot censor a prayer or religious speech. What the court does not want to see is the use of school machinery to choose who is leading the prayer, or to set it up."