IN THE NEWS #434 - Supreme Court/School Prayer

By Nancy Steinbach

This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program IN THE NEWS.

By a vote of six-to-three, the United States Supreme Court has restated its opposition to prayer in public schools. On Monday the high court ruled it unconstitutional for a school system in Texas to let students lead prayers at football games. The First Amendment to the Constitution begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." These words are used to separate religion and government in America.

The Supreme Court has ruled on religious expression in public schools seven times since Nineteen-Sixty-Two. These decisions have banned prayers organized by schools, and reading prayers at the start of the school day. The court has banned placing the Ten Commandments on walls in public schools. It has also banned moments of silence if schools urged students to pray during that time. The Supreme Court has barred religious leaders from leading prayers at public school graduation ceremonies. But it has also ruled that public schools must treat student prayer groups the same as other student groups.

The newest ruling resulted from legal action taken by a Catholic family and a Mormon family against the Santa Fe Independent School District in Texas. They said the school district was violating their rights by permitting students to read Protestant prayers over the loudspeaker system at the start of football games.

District officials said the prayers were constitutionally protected speech. They argued that, under school policy, the student speakers chose what to say at the games. But the ruling said that policy does nothing to protect the minority. It says the appearance of school support for a religious message tells non-believers that they are "outsiders."Writing in dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the decision showed what he called "hostility to all things religious in public life."

Texas Governor George W. Bush supported the school district and said he was disappointed at the ruling. The Republican presidential candidate said he supports what he called "the constitutionally guaranteed right of all students to express their faith freely and participate in voluntary, student-led prayer." His Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, said through a spokesman that he supports private prayer in school as long as taking part is "truly voluntary."

Some states are concerned that the new ruling will open the way for future legal action to ban moments of silence in school. One example is in the southern state of Virginia. It will soon require students to observe a moment of silence at the start of the school day. The purpose is for students to have a quiet time to think about things, or to pray.

This VOA Special English program IN THE NEWS was written by Nancy Steinbach. This is Steve Ember.

Voice of America Special English