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Supreme Court Declines To REview Voluntary-Prayer Case

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week decided, without comment, not to hear an appeal by a group of high-school students who wanted to hold voluntary prayer meetings in a public school.

Called Students for Voluntary Prayer, the group at Guilderland High School in Guilderland, N.Y., was appealing a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that upheld the local school board's refusal to allow the meetings.

The appeals court held that allowing the group's meetings on public property would violate the separation of church and state required by the Constitution.

The week before deciding not to hear the Guilderland case, the Supreme Court had issued a ruling allowing prayer meetings on public-college campuses, on the grounds that such meetings constitute a form of free speech.

In that case, which involved the University of Missouri and a campus prayer group, the Court ruled that if a college or university lets some student organizations meet in campus facilities, the "open forum" policy must be applied to all campus groups. A footnote to the decision said that "university students are, of course, young adults," hinting that the logic in the ruling might not apply to high school students.

Different Opinions

Opinions differ on whether the Court's decision not to hear the Guilderland case means that the Justices will not apply the Missouri decision to public high schools.

Robert P. Roche, one of the lawyers representing the student group in the Guilderland case, believes the Court will not do so.

"There's a time you should fire the gun in the air and call the dogs in," he said. "This is a case in which the Supreme Court barred prayer at the high-school level. As far as I'm concerned, anybody who doesn't think this is the case has misread the intent of the Court."

Mr. Roche called the Guilderland case a free-speech rather than a school-prayer case and expressed disappointment that it "is an issue that brought extremely zealous people from both sides of the fence."

But in the view of Thomas S. Brandon Jr., general counsel for the Christian Legal Society in Oak Park, Ill., the Court's refusal to hear the Guilderland case does not mean, as he says many people are suggesting, "the permanent death of Bible study groups on high-school campuses.

"I think what the Court is doing is making a distinction not necessarily between colleges and high schools and the relative rights of students, but between a case in which an open forum already existed and one in which the students are attempting to open one themselves," Mr. Brandon said.

"The real substance of the court's decision not to hear the case," he added, "is that students on high-school campuses cannot require the school board to let them meet for prayer groups. That doesn't say what happens if the school board decides to let them meet."

Mr. Brandon mentioned one case, Lubbock Civil Liberties Union v. Lubbock Independent School District, in which the local school board granted permission for prayer meetings.

The U.S. District Court in Lubbock, Tex., upheld the school board's decision to allow such meetings, and the civil-liberties group appealed the decision before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. That appeal has not been decided on.

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