The Supreme Court's refusal to hear a school prayer case from Alabama is disappointing but it doesn't change basic constitutional principles relating to prayer in schools, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
On June 18, the high court announced that it will not hear Chandler v. Siegleman, a case from DeKalb County, Ala. Americans United sponsored the lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. The litigation challenged a number of school-sponsored religious practices at an Alabama public school district as well as a state law designed to foster official prayer in public schools.
"This action by the Supreme Court is disappointing, but it's important to keep it in perspective," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The court's inaction does not open the door to official or mandatory prayer in public schools."
Americans United won most of the issues raised in the case, including a court ruling that the Alabama school prayer statute was unconstitutional. On appeal, however, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that students could engage in some forms of religious speech during the school day that might be construed to include prayers before captive audiences. To clear up this question, AU asked the high court to accept the case.
In light of the Supreme Court's refusal, AU Legal Director Steven K. Green issued the following statement:
"The Supreme Court's decision not to review the 11th Circuit's holding does not in any way indicate approval of the appellate court's reasoning contained in its vaguely worded opinions. A denial of review is not the same as an affirmance and sets no legal precedent; each year the court hears less that 2 percent of the cases filed for review. Another possible explanation for the court's inaction is that the student who brought the suit in Chandler graduated on May 23, 2001, thus mooting the controversy. Regardless of the reason, the Supreme Court's decision last term prohibiting student-led prayer at school-sponsored football games (Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe) remains the law of the land, notwithstanding claims to the contrary about the 11th Circuit's holding.
"But more important, the 11th Circuit holding does not guarantee any right of students to engage in religious activity in public school classrooms or in school assemblies. The decisions only hold that if a public school affirmatively permits students to engage in private expression, then it cannot prohibit the students from speaking religiously. The 11th Circuit reaffirmed that school sponsorship or encouragement of religious activity, even if student-led, remains prohibited. The decision, therefore, is quite narrow, and limited to situations in which 'prayer is genuinely student-initiated, and not the product of any school policy which actively or surreptitiously encourages it.'"
AU's Lynn warned Religious Right groups not to misconstrue the scope of the ruling and mislead public school officials. "This decision does not mean that school-sponsored prayer is suddenly legal," Lynn said. "Any public school that promotes, sponsors or fosters prayer or religious worship is asking for a lawsuit."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 70,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.