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Court Rejects Miss. Law Authorizing Student-Led Prayer

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A federal appeals court last week struck down a 1994 Mississippi law that authorized "student-initiated voluntary prayer" at student assemblies, sports contests, and other school events.

State lawmakers passed the measure after a Jackson high school principal was fired for allowing students to pray over the intercom.The dismissal of the principal, Bishop Knox, was later reduced to a suspension.

A U.S. district judge in Jackson issued an injunction in 1994 barring the law from taking effect. He ruled that it violated the U.S.Constitution's prohibition of government establishment of religion.

However, the district judge left intact a section of the law that authorized student-led prayers at graduation. He cited an earlier ruling in favor of graduation prayer by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which includes Mississippi.

In a Jan. 10 ruling in Ingebretsen v. Jackson Public School District, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit court upheld the district judge's ruling.

The law "tells students that the state wants them to pray," said the opinion last week by U.S. Circuit Judge W. Eugene Davis. Students do not need the statute to "pray silently or in a nondisruptive manner whenever and wherever they want."

T. Hunt Cole, who defended the law as a special assistant attorney general of Mississippi, said the state would appeal to the full 5th Circuit court or to the U.S. Supreme Court. "Nothing in the statute compels any student to do anything," he said

Elliot M. Mincberg, the legal director of the Washington advocacy group People for the American Way, which helped back the challenge to the law, praised the ruling. The law, he said, "was giving prayer and religion a special favored status."

--Mark Walsh

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