WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court, stopping just short of banning all prayer from public schools, ruled yesterday that it is unconstitutional for officials to hand over to students the choice to have prayers at school events.
In its first-ever decision on student-led prayer, the court by a 6-3 vote outlawed any student statement that is explicitly religious if it appears to carry the school's "seal of approval."
When expression does have that aura of official endorsement, the court said, it is not private speech expressed at a student's sole discretion.
Specifically, the ruling barred student recitation of a prayer over the public address system at the beginning of high school football games - a tradition long followed on Friday nights in stadiums all across Texas. Game-night prayers in the small Texas town of Santa Fe were at issue in the case
"The listening audience must perceive the pre-game message as a public expression of the views of the majority of the student body delivered with the approval of the school administration," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
The ruling did not deal only with sporting event prayers. It said that this form of expression is forbidden anytime it is done on school property, at a school-sponsored event, in an arrangement authorized by school authorities, and with the student speaker having been chosen by a student vote.
Expressions that apparently would be barred under the new ruling include student-initiated prayers at graduation ceremonies - a practice common in many states, including Maryland - or at school assemblies or programs.
The ruling drew immediate praise and blame, stoking anew the decades-long debate over the role of religion in the lives of public school students.
"The justices rightly said that students should never be allowed to bully classmates into religious worship they may not believe in," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Jan LaRue, senior director of legal studies for the Family Research Council, a conservative legal advocacy group, countered: "Government schools have no business censoring student religious speech. The government's 'benign neutrality' toward religion in this country is now nothing short of malevolent hostility."
Eight years ago, when the court last ruled on school prayer, the justices outlawed graduation-day prayers that are arranged specifically by school officials. Yesterday, it extended that ruling to prayers arranged and recited at the option of students, with the permission of school officials.
Letting students make the choice to pray, and allowing them to recite the prayers, cannot be separated from school sponsorship, the court made clear. It is not a "hands-off approach," it added, when school officials set up a system that they know students will use for prayer.
The majority specifically condemned handing over to a student election the choice for or against having prayers, and the choice of a student or students to do the actual praying.
"Student election does nothing to protect minority views but rather places the students who hold such views at the mercy of the majority. ... The majoritarian process guarantees, by definition, that minority candidates will never prevail and that their views will be effectively silenced."
Bush and Gore disagree
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, had joined personally in the appeal seeking to rescue Santa Fe's prayer policy.
In a statement, Bush said he was disappointed by the ruling, adding, "I thought that voluntary student-led prayer at extracurricular activities was right."
Bush's Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, said through a spokesman that he believed the court "reached the right decision in this case."
The spokesman, Douglas Hattaway, added, however, that Gore "does support private prayer in school and at school-related events as long as participation is truly voluntary."
The decision apparently left undisturbed the right of any public school student to choose, on his or her own, to pray, aloud or privately, "at any time before, during, or after the school day," as the court put it. But such a prayer would probably have to be an isolated one, in no way appearing to have been organized.
The ruling set off a debate among advocacy groups about whether the court had left any openings for organized prayer at school.
Jay Alan Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, said the ruling left open the possibility that an entirely neutral selection method could be used to pick a student who could lead others in prayer.
Using grade-point average to choose a student, or using a class officer elected for other purposes, might satisfy the court, Sekulow suggested.
But Edwin C. Darden, a senior staff lawyer for the National School Boards Association, an advocacy and policy-making group for boards of education across the country, disagreed.
"When you parse this decision, I am not sure that you can still have student prayer in any way that is constitutional," Darden said. "It's still school-managed and state-endorsed.
"The school system will still be there. So will the public address system. So will the student body. It will still be done under school policy."
The court might give some further indication soon of how broad it intends the new ruling to be.
It is scheduled to act, perhaps as soon as next week, on a follow-up case from Alabama, in which a federal appeals court permitted student-initiated prayer at an array of school events - including graduation and at sports events, as well as over the public address system.
Unusually broad language
The language of Justice Stevens' majority opinion yesterday was unusually broad. While focusing partly on the specifics of the Santa Fe case, Stevens went well beyond that dispute to condemn the use of prayer as a method of trying to calm students or improve their demeanor at school events.
"The use of an invocation to foster solemnity is impermissible when, in actuality, it constitutes prayer sponsored by the school," he wrote. "It is unclear what type of message would be both appropriately 'solemnizing' and yet non-religious."
While Stevens said the court recognized "the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions' significance."
But, he went on, "such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport" with the Constitution.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in dissent, said the ruling "essentially invalidates all student elections," because of the possibility that any student elected by his peers to a school post would use that as a forum for prayer.
The dissent was supported by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
In a separate order dealing with religion in the schools, the court left intact a lower-court ruling that bars teachers from telling students that they are free to believe in the biblical view of creation as an offset to a class in the scientific theory of evolution.
A school district in Amite, La., allowed evolution to be taught in the public schools but required that all sessions on that subject had to begin with a statement that students need not abandon a religious view of how life began or develops.
A federal appeals court ruled last summer that this approach has the effect of endorsing religious views. Three justices voted to hear the school district's appeal - one short of the minimum needed.