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U.S. Judge Rules Against Miss. School-Prayer Law

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A federal judge has ruled that a Mississippi law allowing student-led prayers at public school gatherings is unconstitutional, except for a section permitting them at high school graduation ceremonies.

"The aim of Mississippi's school-prayer statute is to permit prayer at virtually any and all school-related activities," U.S. District Court Judge Henry T. Wingate wrote in the Sept. 2 ruling. "Presently, this court cannot find support for this comprehensive approach either in the establishment clause [of the U.S. Constitution] itself, or in the body of cases which have given interpretation to the clause."

The suit was filed in July by several Jackson students and their parents along with the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Our general reaction is to be enormously pleased and gratified," said Judith E. Schaefer, asenior staff attorney at People for the American Way who represented the plaintiffs. "Statutes like these are a threat to religious liberty and religious freedom."

"We are in respectful disagreement with the decision and we intend to appeal," said T. Hunt Cole, an assistant attorney general. The state's appeal would be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.

The Mississippi legislature passed the law last spring, in the wake of public outcry over the suspension of a Jackson principal who had allowed the student-body president to read a prayer on the school intercom system. (See Education Week, May 4, 1994.)

The law, which became effective July 1, allowed "nonsectarian, non-proselytizing, student-initiated" prayer at both compulsory and noncompulsory school events.

In August, the plaintiffs' lawyers were granted a preliminary injunction preventing the state from enforcing the law until the court issued its ruling.

"Although this debate is generally framed by concern of whether prayer in the public schools would complement or boost secular learning and character development, today's ruling makes no reference to these matters," wrote Judge Wingate. "Nor does this case decide whether prayer in the public schools would stem the tide of juvenile unlawfulness and immorality."

Too Vague?

"Rather," he continued, "the focus here is simply on the language of the school-prayer statute."

In his 43-page ruling, Judge Wingate rejected the state's multiple arguments for dismissal.

The state argued that since the law had not yet been enforced, any injury caused to the plaintiffs was purely hypothetical and speculative, that the kind of prayers being challenged were a private rather than state action, and that preventing the law's implementation "would chill the exercise of religious free speech."

But the court found that it was not necessary for the plaintiffs to await enforcement. District officials' testimony that they have been constantly "besieged by student requests to have public, classroom prayer," as well as "huge demonstrations and concomitant public outcry ... demonstrate that the interest in public school prayer is real and will translate into action under this statute," he said.

The ruling found that the law's vagueness and broad scope caused it to violate the establishment clause. The statute did not clearly define "prayer," the judge said, and failed to explain how student-prayer leaders would be selected, who would review prayers "to insure their nonsectarian, non-proselytizing nature," or who would determine prayers' duration or timing.

Such questions, Judge Wingate wrote, "are particularly worrisome and immediate where school-prayer rights have been given not only to high school students but to elementary students as well."

Furthermore, he said, the law lacked any provision that would allow students to refuse to participate or leave the room.

The judge also noted that the injunction did not prevent students from praying silently or aloud in groups before or after school.

However, noting that the Fifth Circuit had found nonsectarian, non-proselytizing, student-initiated prayer at high school commencement ceremonies permissible in the 1992 ruling in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, Judge Wingate upheld that provision of the Mississippi law.

But he added that the Jones ruling addressed only high school commencements, and could not be interpreted to cover elementary or middle school graduations.

Texas Prayer Ruling

In a separate development, the the Fifth Circuit court upheld a district court ruling that the McAllen, Tex., school board is entitled to set restrictions on the content of student-led prayers.

The McAllen board voted to allow a student volunteer to deliver a nonsectarian, non-proselytizing invocation or benediction at a high school graduation ceremony. The district's superintendent added in a memorandum that "specific reference to Jesus Christ, Mohammad, etc., are considered sectarian in nature."

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