Senators Concerned About School Prayer, Racial Diversity

By Mark Walsh — July 13, 2009 2 min read
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Several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have cited education law issues in their opening statements this morning at the confirmation hearing of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee, said he was concerned about judges who push their own views.

“We have seen federal judges force their own political and social agenda on the nation, dictating that the words “under God” be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance and barring students from even silent prayer in schools.”

Sen. Sessions’s written statement even included footnotes. He cited an infamous 2002 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, which held that a school district violated the First Amendment by leading the Pledge because of the inclusion of the words “under God.” That decision, as Sessions noted in his footnote, was overturned by the Supreme Court, although on procedural grounds.

As for a ruling barring “silent prayer,” Sessions cited the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Wallace v. Jaffree, which struck down an Alabama law that authorized schools to have a one-minute daily period of silence “for meditation or silent prayer.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that in her years of service on the Judiciary panel, she has found it increasingly difficult to know from a nominee’s answers to committee questions how they will actually “act as a Supreme Court justice.”

Some justices have been much more than “umpires calling balls and strikes,” she said, in reference to an analogy used by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in his confirmation hearing. She noted, without naming them, that Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. have “disregarded or overturned precedent” in at least eight cases, including “a case involving assignments to attain racial diversity in school assignments.”

She was referring to Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, a 2007 decision in which the court sharply curtailed the ways schools could consider race in assigning students to schools.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., told Judge Sotomayor that he hoped to learn what she thinks about fundamental issues such as “civil rights, privacy, property rights, the separation of church and state, and civil liberties, to name a few.”

“As we continue to strive for equal rights in our schools and workplaces, we debate the tension between admissions policies and hiring practices that acknowledge diversity and those that attempt to be colorblind.”

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., noted that Supreme Court decisions affect “each and every person in the nation,” and that it took the nation a long time to achieve “equal protection for all races.”

“I attended Liberty School No. 64, a public elementary school in Baltimore City,” Sen. Cardin said. “It was part of a segregated public school system that—under the law—denied every student in Baltimore the opportunity to learn in a classroom that represented the diversity of our community.”

The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Cardin said, “moved our nation forward by correcting grievous wrongs that were built into the law.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.