WHEN THE Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Texas high school couldn't allow student-led invocations before football games, it affirmed the freedom of all citizens to choose the devotions they practice.
The court's decision strongly reinforces the limits on prayer in public schools and extends them to student-led prayers at extra-curricular events.
This extension is appropriate because, although attendance at such functions is not mandatory for most students, extracurriculars are often -- as with high school football in Texas -- an important part of student and community life. The price of participation should not include a requirement that students take part in devotions they may find abhorrent.
The First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religious beliefs. But to protect that freedom, it also precludes government from establishing a public religion.
In recent years, the courts have interpreted this to mean that religious expression is permitted in public facilities, as long as the state does not appear to endorse a particular belief.
The reason for this limit is clear and compelling: In a society where citizens are deeply committed to very different religious (and irreligious) beliefs, for the state to appear to endorse any particular doctrine unfairly favors some citizens -- and their values -- at the expense of others.
As Justice Sandra O'Connor wrote in a 1984 decision that has become a landmark, "Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders."
Led by a student chosen in a school-sponsored election and carried over the public address system at a school-sponsored event on school property, the football game invocation surely would have carried the school's imprimatur.
And some students and parents saw in this just the kind of disfavor Justice O'Connor suggested. Indeed, several parents felt so threatened by the policy that they not only sued to stop it, but felt a need to sue as "Jane Does" to shield their identities.
As Justice John Paul Stevens noted in Monday's ruling, nothing in this decision calls into question any public school student's right to pray voluntarily -- before, during or after the school day.
In a bitter dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the decision "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life."
Justice Rehnquist is wrong. The decision is hostile only to state-sponsored and dictated public religious expressions, not to individual or voluntary ones. It is such state-sponsored devotions that are hostile to the religious liberty that Americans hold dear.