School Climate & Safety

Law Update

November 01, 2000 4 min read

Appeals Court Stands By Its Ruling On Student-Led Prayers

The storm over student-led prayers in public schools rages on, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling against a Texas district’s policy authorizing elections to decide whether a student would deliver invocations before football games.

Shortly after its ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the high court vacated a related ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit and told the Atlanta-based court to re-examine the issue in light of Santa Fe.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit had ruled last year that public school officials may not censor or prohibit “genuinely student-initiated religious speech,” even if it occurs at student assemblies, football games, or graduation ceremonies.

On Oct. 19, the panel reinstated its 1999 ruling and issued an additional opinion explaining why it believed the decision was consistent with the Supreme Court’s Santa Fe ruling.

“What the [Supreme] Court condemned in Santa Fe was not private speech endorsing religion, but the delivery of a school-sponsored prayer,” said the new opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge James C. Hill.

The case arose from a lawsuit challenging religious practices in the 7,000-student DeKalb County, Ala., school district. Football-game prayers, graduation prayers, and other religious practices were challenged in 1996 by Michael Chandler, who was an assistant high school principal in the district at the time but has since retired. (“Without a Prayer,” Oct. 30, 1996.)

The lawsuit led to a sweeping injunction by a federal district court that barred the DeKalb County district from permitting any public prayers, by students or others, at any school function.

The 11th Circuit panel’s 1999 ruling threw out the injunction, saying it went too far. Lawyers for Mr. Chandler appealed to the Supreme Court, which put the appeal on hold while the Santa Fe case was pending. As is typical in such situations, the high court then sent Mr. Chandler’s similar case back to the 11th Circuit for a new look.

In the new opinion reinstating last year’s appellate decision, Judge Hill said that even in light of the Santa Fe ruling, the district court’s injunction in the DeKalb County case had gone overboard in prohibiting student religious speech.

The First Amendment clause protecting the free exercise of religion “does not permit the state to confine religious speech to whispers or banish it to broom closets,” Judge Hill wrote in Chandler v. Siegelman.

Lawyers for Mr. Chandler were upset over the new opinion. They suggested that the 11th Circuit panel had defied the Supreme Court’s order to re-examine the 1999 opinion.

“By reinstating the earlier decision, the panel has really disregarded what the Supreme Court asked it to do,” said Steven K. Green, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The Washington-based advocacy group has helped represent Mr. Chandler in the case.

But Attorney General Bill Pryor of Alabama said it was not unusual for a lower court ordered by the Supreme Court to re-examine a ruling to stand by its original reasoning. The high court’s message is not that the related ruling is necessarily wrong, but only that it should be looked at again in light of the new high court decision, he said.

Santa Fe prohibits school sponsorship of prayer,” said Mr. Pryor, who has helped defend the DeKalb County district. “Chandler prohibits school censorship of prayer. School officials can neither promote nor discourage student religious expression.”

While school administrators wrestle with that distinction, the latest 11th Circuit ruling will be appealed, Mr. Green said. The full 11th Circuit court, and if necessary the Supreme Court, will be asked to review it, he said.

Education in Jail

A Pennsylvania law that allows the state to withhold educational services from some incarcerated juvenile offenders who are convicted as adults does not violate their federal constitutional rights, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, came in a class action filed against the Pennsylvania education department and three school districts.

The Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia filed the lawsuit on behalf of juveniles convicted as adults who are serving their sentences in county jails rather than state correctional facilities. While those in state facilities receive full educational programs under the law, youths in county jails receive minimal or no schooling.

Other categories of youth offenders in county jails—pretrial detainees and special education students—are entitled to education programs. But state law makes an exception for youths convicted as adults. Whether such an offender is sent to a county jail or a state facility is decided by a judge, who bases the decision on the seriousness of the crimes.

The lawsuit argued that the disparate treatment violated the youths’ 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

But the 3rd Circuit majority ruled that the state had a rational basis for limiting education opportunities for the youths convicted as adults and sent to county jails.

The state said that space was limited in county jails, and that state facilities generally had larger youth populations, which made it more cost- effective to offer education services there.

“A legislature’s nonarbitrary judgment about educational priorities is not subject to judicial second- guessing,” the majority said in its Oct. 12 opinion.

—Mark Walsh

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