Professor clarifies prayer law

Published 8:00 pm Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Lincoln County School District has been given until Friday by the American Civil Liberties Union to explain how it’s going to stop school-sponsored prayers at West Lincoln Attendance Center, and district administrators have said they have little choice but to comply.

     An area law professor and the district’s legal adviser both agree that’s because, though they remain controversial, the U.S. Supreme court’s rulings on school prayer are well-settled.

     “If the ACLU were to sue the school district, the ACLU would almost certainly win,” said Matthew Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College School of Law.

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     Beginning with a landmark 1962 Supreme Court case, Engel v. Vitale, a series of court rulings have arrived at the current interpretation of the First Amendment’s bar on an “establishment of religion.”

     “Federal law is quite clear,” Steffey said. “School-sponsored prayer during the school days or during school activities is plainly forbidden. The governing principle is the school is not allowed to sponsor or endorse a particular religious message.”

     Steffey said this applies to class, lunch, morning announcements and extracurricular activities. Neither can religious symbols like crosses or posters of the 10 Commandments be posted on school walls.

     A 1980 Supreme Court case, Stone v. Graham, specifically dealt with symbols, ruling a Kentucky law requiring the 10 Commandments be posted in classrooms unconstitutional.

     However, this is not to say that any prayer by anyone on school grounds is forbidden.

     “Students do not shed their Constitutional rights,” Steffey said. “On their free time, they are allowed to gather and pray.”

     For example, if a group of students sitting at a table at lunch wants to join hands and pray, that’s fine. The school, however, can’t do anything to support the prayer or give students a special platform or venue to pray.

     “If it’s a period where students can talk to each, then they can talk to each other and pray,” Steffey said. “It crosses the lines when the school gets involved.”

     So while students sitting at a lunch table can pray together as easily as they could talk to each other, a teacher or administrator can’t set aside time and invite a student to offer a prayer for the table or room.

     Steffey said some states and schools have attempted to get around regulation on prayer under the guise of respecting the rights of students, but have still run afoul of the law.

     The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 ruling in Wallace v. Jaffree struck down an Alabama law allowing teachers to set aside one minute at the start of class for “silent meditation or voluntary prayer.”

     The majority of the court found that the law in question had no secular purpose and, though the prayers were silent and voluntary, even the invitation to pray was an advancement of religion and barred under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

     The courts have also found that student-led prayer before a football game is impermissible. In a 2000 decision, the Supreme Court ruled a district couldn’t allow a student to prayer over a public address system.

     In a lawsuit, the fact that West Lincoln Attendance Center serves very young students would raise particular scrutiny, Steffey believes.

     “The younger children are, the more serious these concerns are,” Steffey said, explaining courts have tended to believe younger children are more easily coerced by school-sponsored prayers.

     The Lincoln County School District’s attorney has offered much the same assessment of current law.

     In a letter sent to Superintendent Terry Brister last year, the school district’s attorney advised Brister of federal law.

     “A school district must remain neutral on matters of a religious nature and by allowing invocations, the district is not remaining neutral,” wrote James A. Keith with Adams and Reese law firm.

     Keith said disagreement with prohibitions against school prayer doesn’t change the fact that those prohibitions are legally binding, writing, “Since the courts have clearly spoken, we must follow the law.”