Prayer at US-government sponsored events comes under court spotlight

Roy Costner IV at the lectern during his high school graduation in South Carolina earlier this month. Costner, as the school's valedictorian, was chosen to speak to his fellow graduates. Instead of delivering his pre-approved remarks, he recited the Lord's Prayer. Public religious expression in public schools, when organized by government officials, has been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. On the other hand, the High Court has said that students need not abandon their constitutional right to free speech at the schoolhouse door.

The legality of public prayer at U.S. government-sponsored events is in the spotlight due to the Supreme Court's decision to hear a case on the issue and a student's recitation of the Lord's Prayer at a high school graduation.

In late May, the U.S. High Court agreed to consider a case involving prayers at the meetings of the Greece, New York Town Board.

A federal appeals court ruled last year that the prayers at the beginning of the meetings violated the U.S. Constitution.

The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

It is known as the Establishment Clause.

The Supreme Court's decision to review the opinion of 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals was prompted by the latter body's ruling being contrary to those made by other appeals courts.

Two plaintiffs have argued that the prayers at the town board meetings have been primarily Christian. One of the plaintiffs is Jewish and the other is an atheist.

"A town council meeting isn't a church service, and it shouldn't seem like one," said Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the plaintiffs.

"Government can't serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion."

The board allows a clergy member or town citizen to offer prayers at the beginning of its meetings.

Those offering prayers have included a Jewish man, a Wiccan priestess, the chairman of a local Baha'i congregation and an atheist, according to the Catholic News Agency (CNA).

Judge Guido Calabresi of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said the town did not make enough effort to recruit or advertise for volunteers.

Calebresi said the ruling did not prohibit prayers at government meetings.

"A few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn't like," said Brett Harvey, a lawyer for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is defending Greece.

"Because the authors of the Constitution invoked God's blessing on public proceedings, this tradition shouldn't suddenly be deemed unconstitutional."

In another case involving public prayer at a government sponsored event, Roy Costner IV, the valedictorian of the senior class at Liberty High School in South Carolina, surprised those attending graduation exercises by ripping up his prepared speech and instead saying the Lord's Prayer.

"I'm so thankful that both my parents led me to the Lord at a young age," he told the crowd, according to Citizen Link magazine. "And I think most of you will understand when I say: Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name."

Costner received applause and cheers as he began to pray. As he continued, the audience became quiet.

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) notes on its website, "Although public school officials may not promote or initiate student prayer or require unwilling students to participate in prayer, they may support and give official recognition to this nation's collective religious heritage without risking a violation of the Establishment Clause."

The center said, "Important questions arise when it comes to whether students can have student-led prayer at graduation or other school events. The answer depends to a large extent on the particular circumstances of the prayer and the event."

The U.S. Department of Education notes in its official guidance to public schools on school prayer that the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer.

"Accordingly, the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals."

The Department of Education indicates that Supreme Court rulings over the last 40 years mean that public school officials cannot organize religious expressions.

The department's guidance explains that school officials may not attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.

Such conduct is "attributable to the State" and thus violates the Establishment Clause.

"Similarly, public school officials may not themselves decide that prayer should be included in school-sponsored events."

The Establishment Clause is balanced by Free Speech Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment. It says that, "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech."

The Supreme Court generally has interpreted this to mean that students may engage in private prayer on school grounds.

The school district of Pickens County, where Liberty High is located, had banned Christian prayers, but allowed non-sectarian prayers.

Officials said they would not punish Costner.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a group which opposes public religious expression in schools and monitors such cases, says on its website, "When religion has invaded our public school system, it has singled out the lone Jewish student, the class Unitarian or agnostic, the children in the minority.

"Families who protest State/Church violations in our public schools invariably experience persecution. It was commonplace prior to the court decision against school prayer to put non-religious or nonorthodox children in places of detention during bible-reading or prayer recitation.

"I wanted to stand up for God," Costner was quoted as saying by CNN."This is what God wanted me to do."

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