WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that allowed students to participate in group prayers at school functions such as football games or graduations.
The court's action, taken without comment or explanation Monday, is a defeat for civil liberties groups, and appears to be at direct odds with another ruling on student prayer last year.
Despite the confusion, the court's action likely represents its last word on a court ruling that said Alabama students may lead prayers at school activities, including sporting events, student assemblies and graduations.
After the court's action, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor said, ''While the U.S. Constitution calls for neutrality toward religion, it does not require, and in fact does not permit, public schools to suppress student-initiated religious speech.''
The Supreme Court has already considered the Alabama case once, sending it back to a lower court for reconsideration in light of last year's major decision that bars students from leading stadium crowds in prayer.
In the appeal acted on Monday, a high school vice principal in DeKalb County and his son, student Jesse Chandler, argued that the lower court misinterpreted last year's high court ruling.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other opponents of the Alabama policy said it represented a threat to the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Critics particularly objected to the broadcast of prayer on school intercoms and from microphones at sporting events or ceremonies -- just the activity at issue in last year's case.
The First Amendment protects free speech and the free exercise of religion, but it also forbids government promotion or ''establishment'' of religion.
By choosing not to hear the case, the Supreme Court put off deciding what the rule of law will be, an ACLU lawyer said.
''The court is saying, 'We don't have time to hear it,' or 'We're not ready to hear it,''' said Liz Hubertz, who represented the Chandlers.
In a landmark 1962 decision, the Supreme Court outlawed organized, officially sponsored prayers in public schools. In 1992, the justices barred clergy-led prayers at public school graduation ceremonies.
The following year, Alabama legislators enacted a law requiring public schools to allow student-initiated prayer as long as they do not promote one religion over another and as long as students do not try to convert their classmates.
A federal judge declared the law unconstitutional and barred all non-private prayer, including student-initiated prayer at graduations, assemblies and football games.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in 1999, saying courts could not prohibit ''genuinely student-initiated religious speech'' at school events, including graduations, or impose restrictions greater than those on nonreligious student speech.
The appeals court ordered the judge to rewrite the original order, saying the court could bar school officials from encouraging student religious activity and appoint a monitor to ensure such actions do not recur. The court let stand the judge's ruling that declared the state law unconstitutional.
At that point the Chandlers first appealed to the Supreme Court. ''Truly private prayer neither seeks nor requires a microphone and an audience,'' they argued then.
In responding to the second Chandler appeal, attorneys for Alabama argued that the case became moot when Jesse Chandler graduated from high school this year.
The case is Chandler v. Siegelman, 00-1606.
On the Net:
Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov
For previous appeals court rulings: http://www.uscourts.gov/links.html and click on 11th Circuit.
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