Religious groups claim victory in high court cases Off-hours meetings, graduation prayers in schools get OK

June 08, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau Staff writers Aminah Franklin and Shanon D. Murray contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Giving conservative Christians solace in their effort to put God back into the public schools, the Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for student-led prayers at graduation exercises and for religious programs in school buildings at night and on weekends.

In a separate decision strongly favoring the police, the court gave officers new authority to use a frisk for weapons to check for illegal drugs, too. That ruling authorized broader "sense of touch" searches, without a warrant, while patting down a suspect's clothing.

The court's two actions on religion led fundamentalist Christian activists to claim complete victories, but led civil rights lawyers to try to minimize the significance of what the justices had done.

Just a year ago, the court seemed to settle the constitutional fight over prayers at public school graduation ceremonies: It banned almost all such rituals, by a 5-4 vote.

Since then, however, a lower federal court found a loophole, saying that prayer is allowed if school officials do not make the arrangements, but permit students to make the decision and to lead the praying. Yesterday, without a dissenting vote noted, the justices permitted that decision to stand.

The lower court decision is one that the National Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocacy group for fundamentalist causes, has used in a nationwide campaign to try to convince local school boards that prayers at this spring's graduations were constitutional, if they were the result of student choice, with students leading the recital.

The National Center's chief counsel, Jay Alan Sekulow, said the Supreme Court's order in the case from Clear Lake High School in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake City will permit "students nationwide to pray and speak out about God during graduation ceremonies this month."

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta, ruled in the Clear Lake case that last year's Supreme Court decision meant only that public school officials themselves could not direct a formal religious exercise as part of graduation rites.

The Circuit Court said: "A majority of students can do what the state acting on its own cannot do."

Stephen R. Shapiro, associate legal director in charge of Supreme Court cases for the American Civil Liberties Union, cautioned that the order yesterday did not mean explicit approval by the justices of the Circuit Court ruling. He said there was a multitude of reasons the court might not want to get back into the graduation prayers issue right now, and that the denial of a review should be interpreted narrowly.

He also said that, in a series of new lawsuits growing out of the graduation prayer issue this year, lower federal courts have been voting regularly against student-led religious invocations.

Doubts remain

The court's action yesterday, coupled with its different ruling a year ago, appeared to be creating doubts among school officials in Maryland about what they could legally do now. For example, Donald Mahler, principal of Catonsville High School in Baltimore County, remarked: "It's still a very gray area for us. We don't want to involve ourselves in making any changes until [yesterday's action] is made more clarified. Until then, we're going to stick with the decision we've made" -- that is, not to have an invocation at the graduation, a policy adopted after last year's ruling.

In the second action on religion yesterday, the justices ruled unanimously that, if a school opens up its buildings for after-hours use by some civic groups, it may not bar a fundamentalist church from meeting there to talk about civic issues from a purely religious point of view.

A lower court had barred a church named Lamb's Chapel from using public school buildings in the Long Island town of Center Moriches to conduct an anti-abortion, anti-pornography film and lecture series that would celebrate "traditional, Christian family values."

'Discrimination'

The court, in an opinion written by Justice Byron R. White, said that it is unconstitutional for public school officials to discriminate against religious viewpoints when they open up school facilities for civic groups or programs.

"There is no suggestion . . . that a lecture or film about child-rearing and family values would not be a use for social or civil purposes," Justice White wrote.

The National Center's Mr. Sekulow, who argued and won that case for Lamb's Chapel, declared: "The Supreme Court has clearly stated that religious speech must not be censored from the marketplace of ideas."

The ACLU's Mr. Shapiro, however, argued that the ruling was tied closely to the specific facts in the Center Moriches case, and "clearly was not a general endorsement of religious speech in the schools."

Effect on Maryland

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