Texas school officials think they can ignore Supreme Court prayer rulings
When you use public funded facilities at public funded events to propagate messages from your particular flavor of religion then you are infringing the rights of people who are of different religions, not practicing freedom of speech. I suspect any student quoting from the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita would quickly have the microphone yanked away by these same school officials and legislators.
So how is the school district getting away with this? Officials there are pointing to a 2007 measure passed by Texas legislators called the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act. The law supposedly codifies students’ religious ‘rights’ in public schools. One of these alleged rights is the right to pray at school events.
When this measure was passed, Americans United warned that it would lead to nothing but trouble. Sure enough, we’re seeing the negative fallout.
‘If the students choose to do a prayer, they can,’ Birdville schools spokesman Mark Thomas told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. ‘They can do a welcome…. It’s a freedom-of-speech issue that was addressed in legislation.’
Here’s the problem with that: Texas lawmakers can’t pass legislation overturning Supreme Court rulings. The ruling in the Santa Fe case, which, ironically, came from Texas, addressed this issue square on.
The prayers in that case were supposedly ‘student-run’ too. They weren’t even called prayers but were often referred to as ‘messages.’ Students volunteered to give them.
The court majority saw right through the ruse.
Observed Justice John Paul Stevens, ‘Such a system encourages divisiveness along religious lines and threatens the imposition of coercion upon those students not desiring to participate in a religious exercise.’
Continued Stevens, ‘The District, nevertheless, asks us to pretend that we do not recognize what every Santa Fe High School student understands clearly – that this policy is about prayer. We refuse to turn a blind eye to the context in which this policy arose, and that context quells any doubt that this policy was implemented with the purpose of endorsing school prayer.’
The Supreme Court first struck down coercive programs of school prayer 50 years ago in Engel v. Vitale. (You can read about that decision here.) Since then, states and individual school districts have at times toyed with various policies to get around the ban on official school prayer.
All have failed. The high court has seen these attempts for what they are: efforts to do an end run around the Constitution.
Here’s the bottom line: Public schools serve young people from a variety of religious traditions as well as those who have no particular faith. They have no right to compel students to take part in prayer or other forms of worship at a school-sponsored event such as a football game and a commencement exercise.