The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in in a closely watched Texas case dealing with officially sanctioned, student-led prayer before public school football games.
"This is the most important religion-and-schools case in a decade," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This case will decide whether students can be pressured to pray at public schools. The outcome of this case can permanently change the church-state landscape."
The Supreme Court first ruled against school-sponsored prayer in the 1962 Engel v. Vitale case from New York. Since then, the justices have consistently ruled against all forms of school-sanctioned worship, while allowing purely voluntary student-initiated religious activities (such as Bible clubs).
Religious Right groups are now trying to expand the definition of "student-led" to include coercive worship before football games, graduation ceremonies and perhaps even daily classroom activities. In the Texas case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, school officials approved a policy allowing students to vote to elect a student representative to lead a prayer.
Church-state separationists vigorously oppose allowing students to pressure their classmates to join them in prayer.
"Prayer is a deeply personal experience," said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ as well as an attorney. "School officials and student majorities should never be allowed to bully other children into religious worship they may not believe in. The Bill of Rights provides for individual freedom of conscience, not the tyranny of the majority."
Americans United filed a "friend of the court" brief with the Supreme Court in this case, telling the justices that there is an important constitutional difference between private religious expression and prayers sponsored by the government. AU is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 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.