Texas school officials think they can ignore Supreme Court prayer rulings

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.  

4 Responses to Texas school officials think they can ignore Supreme Court prayer rulings

  1. Keep the faculty from speaking to the students religiously within the school when they are on the clock, that’s fine, but when it comes to telling the students what they can and cannot say, whether it be over a loadspeaker or on a banner at a football game, that’s wrong. Free speech is protected under the first ammendment period. If there happened to be one particular set of justices that disagreed with that simple statement, then they were wrong too. The supreme court is not infallible.

    • Here’s the problem with your argument. Students at public schools are a captive audience. Meaning, CT, that noone..not even fellow students, have the right to force their fellow students to participate or listen to said religious displays. Over the loudspeaker is an example of one student forcing others to participate and listen to said prayers. So you are wrong. Same goes with the banners. Why should students who are non-Christian be forced into second class citizenhood by the supposed majority, CJ? And unless the Supreme Court overturns itself, sorry, no school has the right to blithely ignore US Supreme Court decisions.

    • So if anyone can say anything, by your freedom of speech thinking, could I, as a student before a game, get up and slight God, or thank Allah or similar unchristian things? Saying something like God does not exist and to go do their best and win it for themselves, or Allah? I doubt you would allow that, ergo it is not free speech then is it. Whilst I totally agree with free speech, you have to realise if it works one way it has to work the other and typically the issue is not about free speech, but about only one side demanding free speech and not allowing the other view points.

  2. CT these a highschool games on public property where I assume a fee is charged. As someone who does not believe in a god they are impinging on my right as a taxpayer to not be preached lies when attending a public event. According to the bible this is the guideline for prayer “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Public prayers are prosletizing and they should not be allowed at a public funded event because then they are impacting the rights of others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>