WASHINGTON, June 19 -- In a major decision on church and state, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday that a policy allowing student-led prayer at a Texas high school's football games violates the Constitution.
One court dissenter, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, complained that the majority opinion "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life."
Catholic and Mormon families had challenged the school district policy. The Supreme Court for years has said that prayers led by school officials or other authority figures is unconstitutional, but had never ruled on any form of student-led prayer.
Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens minced no words Monday. He rejected the school district's argument that students leading a public prayer at the games were "private" speakers.
"The delivery of such a message -- over the school's public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer -- is not properly characterized as 'private' speech," Stevens said.
Stevens made it plain that any student is free to pray privately in school.
"Nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this court prohibits any school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day," Stevens said. "But the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular practice of religion."
Rehnquist dissented, joined by fellow conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Rehnquist said not all student speech should be "content-neutral."
"The court (majority) distorts existing precedent to conclude that the school district's student-message program is invalid on its face under the establishment clause (of the First Amendment)," Rehnquist wrote. The clause bans the "establishment" of a religion by the government. "But even more disturbing that its holding is the tone of the court's opinion; it bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life."
Most of the Republican congressional leadership, including Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, had filed briefs supporting the local school system's policy of student-led prayer. The presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, had offered muted support.
Seven other states also offered support for the student-led prayer policy.
The case is centered on a small south Texas community of Santa Fe. It has only one high school.
A federal appeals court determined that the school district "allowed students to read overtly Christian prayers from the stage at graduation ceremonies and over the public address system at home football games....Of course, (the school district) maintained complete control over the programs and facilities during the reading of the prayers, including the ability to mute the microphone or remove the speaker."
In order to make the program more legally palatable, the school district required that the student speaker be elected by the student body, and that the speaker be allowed, within reason, to talk on any subject that "solemnized" the occasion of a football game
The policy was challenged in court in 1995 by the families of Mormon and Catholic students, who objected to the religious, principally Baptist tone of the prayers coming from student speakers. The families were allowed to go to court anonymously because of fears of intimidation.
Eventually, the federal appeals court ruled against the school district. The same appeals court had ruled in an earlier case, 1992's Jones vs. Clear Creek, that religious invocations could be used at graduations, and only graduations, as long as they were non-sectarian and did not "proselytize," urge listeners to adopt a particular religious viewpoint. The Supreme Court refused to review that ruling.
But this time around, the appeals court ruled in the Santa Fe case that a public school policy permitting "sectarian, proselytizing benedictions and invocations cannot pass constitutional muster," and "extending a Clear Creek prayer policy to cover messages delivered before a high school football game violates the Constitution, even if such a policy includes the 'non-sectarian, non-proselytizing' restrictions."
The school district then asked the Supreme Court for review. The justices granted review only on the issue of football games and similar events, not graduations. That separate issue must wait for another case in another term.
Monday's Supreme Court majority opinion in the football game case upholds the lower-court ruling.