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High Court Affirms Rejection of Miss. Prayer Law

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court refused last week to revive a 1994 Mississippi law that authorized "voluntary" student prayers at assemblies, sports events, and other school activities.

The high court let stand without comment rulings from lower federal courts that found the law unconstitutional and barred it from taking effect.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, state officials did not stress the merits of the law but argued instead that the plaintiffs who challenged it lacked the legal standing to do so. They also argued that the law should not have been blocked by the courts before it took effect.

The lower courts had rejected those arguments in finding that the law violated the Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

State legislators enacted the law after a Jackson high school principal, Bishop Knox, defied his superiors by allowing students to pray over the school intercom each day. Mr. Knox was fired, prompting an outcry throughout the state. His dismissal was later reduced to a suspension.

The law authorizes "nonsectarian, nonproselytizing student-initiated voluntary prayer" during school events. It was challenged by David Ingebretsen, the executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Both a federal district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit barred the law from taking effect, saying it put the state in a position of endorsing religion. But the lower courts left intact a portion of the law that authorizes student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies.

In an earlier case from Texas, the 5th Circuit had ruled that student-led graduation prayers in some circumstances do not violate the Constitution.

The courts rejected portions of the law covering sporting events, assemblies, and other compulsory or noncompulsory events.

"A state policy of prayer at school tells students that the state wants them to pray," a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court said in its unanimous ruling in January. "The school-prayer statute is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. ("Court Rejects Miss. Law Authorizing Student-Led Prayer," Jan. 17, 1996.)

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, Mississippi officials said no student had invoked the prayer law or engaged in prayers authorized by the statute before it was blocked. Thus, the state argued, the lawsuit and the court injunction that kept the law from taking effect were premature.

Opponents replied that the state's arguments had no merit because the law was likely to be invoked as soon as the 1994 school year began.

The Supreme Court's refusal on Nov. 4 to hear the state's appeal in Moore v. Ingebretsen (Case No. 96-331) means that the justices have once again passed up an opportunity to clarify the rights of students to deliver prayers in public school settings.

Conflicting Rulings

The high court struck down clergy-led prayers at graduation ceremonies in the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman. The court in 1993 declined to review the 5th Circuit Court's ruling authorizing student-led graduation prayers.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had later ruled that student-led graduation prayers violated the First Amendment, but the high court threw out that ruling on a technicality. The student who challenged student-led prayers in an Idaho district had graduated, making the case moot.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled against student-led graduation prayers in a New Jersey district. But the Black Horse Pike regional school district has decided not to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court, according to the board's lawyer.

The Mississippi law went well beyond graduation prayer by authorizing student-led prayers at a variety of school events.

Other Cases

Separately last week, the high court:

  • Rejected an appeal from property owners in North Carolina who argued that the Dare County district had illegally condemned their land for a school athletic field. The appeal was Sakaria v. Dare County Board of Education (No. 96-185).
  • Heard arguments in two cases raising questions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the main federal job-discrimination law. In Robinson v. Shell Oil Co. (No. 95-1376), the court must decide whether Title VII protects an employee from retaliation from his former employer.

In Walters v. Metropolitan Educational Enterprises Inc. (No. 95-259), the court will decide how employees should be counted in a small company to determine whether Title VII takes effect.

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