There are times when I think we should just round up every church-state attorney we can find, fly them down to Texas and start suing school districts until they behave.
I realize Texas has a tradition of being stubborn – it used to be an independent republic, after all – but things are getting out of hand.
Exhibit A: The Birdville School District. Egged on by school officials, students there are reciting prayers over the loudspeaker before football games. This is a practice the Supreme Court specifically declared unconstitutional in a 2000 case called Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.
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.
The Supreme Court has made this clear time and again. If officials at Texas school districts are seeking guidance on this issue, they would do better to read the high court’s rulings in this area, not listen to pack of bloviating politicians whose goal is to win the next election, not uphold the Constitution.
This is important. If public school officials in Texas screw this up, the consequences will be most unfortunate when that plane load of lawyers finally touches down.