U.S. appeals court strikes down most student prayers Graduation exempted in ruling in Miss. case

January 11, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Ruling in a celebrated dispute in Mississippi, a federal appeals court yesterday struck down most, but not all, of a state law that allows student-led prayers at school assemblies and sports events.

The decision, by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans, permits students to lead prayer only at graduation ceremonies -- a practice that the court had upheld earlier and refused to reconsider yesterday.

The rest of the ruling appeared to be broader than any federal court decision so far against prayers that students choose to recite at school-sponsored gatherings.

Mississippi's legislature passed the law in 1994 in reaction to a furor in Jackson after a high school principal was fired for letting students recite a prayer over the intercom. The principal was reinstated after students staged vigils to protest his firing.

In recent years, the controversy over prayer in public schools has centered on student-initiated praying. That practice was promoted by advocates of religion in schools after a series of Supreme Court rulings barred school officials and teachers from leading or sponsoring prayers.

The Supreme Court, in its most recent decision, barred school officials from arranging prayers at graduation ceremonies. That ruling, however, left open the question of the constitutionality of prayers that students themselves plan or arrange.

Twice, including as recently as June, the Supreme Court has refused to review that separate issue.

Under the Mississippi law that was mostly nullified by the Circuit Court yesterday, school officials must allow "student-initiated voluntary prayer" not identified with any particular religious sect at both compulsory and voluntary "student assemblies, student sporting events, graduation or commencement ceremonies and other school-related student events."

The Circuit Court said that the law clearly was an effort by the state government "to advance prayer in public schools."

Students must attend school under compulsory attendance laws, the court said, and thus they would be "a captive audience," forced to listen to prayers.

State officials have the option of asking the full Circuit Court to overturn yesterday's ruling by a three-judge panel and, if unsuccessful there, of taking the dispute to the Supreme Court.

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