The Supreme Court and Prayer at Football Games
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard a major case involving school prayer. The legal controversy, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, was argued before the high court on March 29, 2000, and a decision is expected by early July. This is an important case that could affect the rights of all public school students, as well as their families. Religious Right organizations that oppose church-state separation are spreading misinformation about the case and the status of the law regarding religion in public education. In light of that, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has prepared this question-and-answer sheet, which addresses some of the issues facing the court.
What’s this case all about?
In fall 1995, hundreds of students and sports fans from the Santa Fe, Texas, community attended a public high school football game. But before the game began, school officials turned over the microphone to a student elected by fellow classmates to recite a prayer over the stadium’s public address system. Two students in the audience, one Catholic and the other Mormon, recognized that it was not their prayer being read and thought that something was amiss.
Parents of the two children troubled by the football game prayer, with assistance from the Texas affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, tried to negotiate with the Santa Fe school district, asking school officials to stop promoting prayer at school events. When those attempts failed, the parents filed suit in federal court.
On Feb. 26, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that invocations before football games are impermissible and the school district’s policy is unconstitutional. On Nov. 15, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of the case.
The question at hand is simply whether school authorities are permitted to broadcast a student prayer before a football game.
So what’s wrong with students praying at a football game?
Nothing’s wrong with someone praying at a school event, and no one is trying to take away an individual’s right to pray. If a student wants to pray before, during or after a football game, that’s entirely up to him or her.
But the issue in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe is not whether individual students can pray before the game, it’s about whether the school can get involved with the religious exercise by turning over the school’s public address system for a prayer endorsed by the school — a prayer that everyone is forced to listen to.
How is the school getting involved with the prayer?
Instead of simply allowing students who wish to pray to do so, the school gets involved in multiple ways. First, the school facilitates a student election that allows the student body to vote for a classmate to deliver the prayer at the game.
Additionally, school officials turn over the school’s public address system to broadcast a prayer to school students at an official school event. The school is therefore setting the time, place and length of religious worship. To suggest that these prayers are entirely student-initiated and that the school has nothing to do with it simply isn’t true.
Isn’t this about free speech?
Absolutely not. Opponents of church-state separation have done an effective job of obscuring this case, suggesting that the free exercise of religion hangs in the balance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is a critical difference between private individual speech and speech promoted by the government. Consider this analogy: A group of people can go to a public park and exercise their free speech. They can even get on "soapboxes" and share their speech with others. But once the state decides to help broadcast one person’s speech to everyone in the park because it is popular, it becomes state-sponsored speech.
Whether a student chooses to pray at a football game is entirely up to him or her, as it should be. But it becomes state-sponsored when the school broadcasts the popular prayer to an entire audience in attendance for a football game. Public schools must be neutral on religion to protect the rights of everyone. Students should not be pressured to pray, whether it’s at football games, in the classroom or anywhere else.
If a majority of the students wants a prayer before a game, shouldn’t the majority rule?
Our First Amendment rights are not open to a popularity contest. Prayer is a deeply personal experience, best left to an individual, his or her family and conscience. It is not the government’s job to promote or encourage prayer.
School officials and student majorities should never be allowed to bully other children into religious worship they may not believe in. The Bill of Rights provides for individual freedom of conscience, not a tyranny of the majority.
Doesn’t the school want "non-sectarian" and "non-proselytizing" prayer?
There’s no such thing as "non-sectarian" and "non-proselytizing" prayer. Prayer between individuals and their God is deeply private and does not exist in a "one size fits all" format. In any given community, there are diverse religious communities with different religious traditions and many people who have chosen no spiritual path at all. It just is not possible for there to be a prayer that would please everyone. Furthermore, as a point of fact, in Santa Fe most of the prayers recited ended "in Jesus’ name" — hardly non-sectarian.
How does this controversy effect religious minorities?
Badly. Since the students elect a classmate to deliver a prayer before a game, students of minority faiths are unlikely to get chosen. As a result, religious minorities who want to attend their own school events have to endure school-promoted worship that often conflicts with what they are taught at home and at their house of worship.
In other words, if you’re a member of a minority faith and it’s not your prayer the school is broadcasting, the state is effectively telling you, "too bad." Public school students should never be made to feel like second-class citizens at their own school.
What is the Religious Right’s interest in this case?
For decades, opponents of church-state separation have looked for ways to undermine and circumvent Supreme Court rulings on religion in public schools. Not satisfied that students already have the right to pray at school, these people have looked for ways for the government to play a larger role in promoting religion.
As a result, Religious Right strategists see the Santa Fe conflict as an opportunity to get a foot in the door on the issue of religion in public schools. After repeated failed attempts to get around Supreme Court rulings on school neutrality on religious matters, many opponents of church-state separation feel that "student-initiated prayer" is the answer they’ve been looking for.
To help ensure the success of this plan, TV preacher Pat Robertson’s legal arm, the American Center for Law and Justice, will be representing the school board. In November, the Santa Fe School Board voted to name the ACLJ and its chief counsel, Jay Sekulow, as "counsel of record" in the case at the Supreme Court, and Sekulow will be responsible for oral arguments before the justices.
In addition legal support from Robertson’s ACLJ, briefs in favor of the prayer policy have been filed with the Supreme Court by lawyers working on behalf of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, John Whitehead’s Rutherford Institute, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Alliance and Wallbuilders, a Texas-based Religious Right group founded by David Barton. 21 members of the House of Representatives signed onto the Wallbuilders’ brief, including House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Reps. Bob Aderholt (R-Ala.), Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) and Bob Barr (R-Ga.).
If this is just about prayer at a football game, what is the legal significance of this case?
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Santa Fe School District in this case, it will create a precedent for greater government endorsement and promotion of religious worship. This would represent a radical departure from Court precedent that has mandated government neutrality on religious matters.
Can this case impact school prayer laws in other ways?
Definitely. If the Supreme Court rules that public school students can elect a classmate to lead students in prayer at an official school event, what’s to say that the same practice couldn’t be applied to homeroom every morning?
Years ago, supporters of state-sponsored religion would tell dissenters that if they didn’t like mandated Christian prayer and Bible reading every morning, they could wait in the hall. There’s a very real possibility this decision could turn back the clock toward those days.