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Reform Jewish Movement Welcomes Supreme Court Decision Against School-Sponsored Prayer at Athletic Events

Saperstein: "The Court today made clear that there is not one constitution for football players and one for all other public-school students."

Contact: Raanan Weintraub, (202) 387-2800


WASHINGTON June 19, 2000 — Reacting to today's United States Supreme Court decision in the case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe , in which the Court ruled that school — sponsored prayer — even if it is student led — is a violation of the First Amendment, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

Today's U.S. Supreme Court decision in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe upholds the common-sense notion that public school athletic events are school-sponsored activities. The Court today made clear that there is not one Constitution for football players and one for all other public-school students. We welcome the Court's holding that school-sponsored worship, even in the guise of a student-initiated event, is an infringement upon the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and a threat to true religious freedom.

As a religious community, we know prayer to have deep value and power. As members of a religious minority, however, we also know too well the dangers of state-sponsored prayer and religion. We know that not long ago in this country, Jewish students were made to feel like outcasts in their own schools, given the unfair choice between participating with their fellow students in morning Christian-prayer and Bible reading or leaving the classroom to stand alone in the hall.

The case does not conclude — and we are not arguing — that students do not have the right to pray in public schools. Private, voluntary prayer is not only permitted in public schools; it constitutionally protected. It is school officials organizing or conducting prayer or permitting such activities at school-sponsored events that is impermissible. Prayers for the safety, and even the success, of high school football players may be spoken within the heart of each student and family member. Just as students may pray privately before class or during lunch, a quarterback can pray that his pass will be complete, a field goal kicker that his aim is true, or a group of students can step aside to say a prayer if it does not interfere with the activity. The Supreme Court wisely has maintained that this type of prayer is not the same as officially supported and conducted prayers read over a loudspeaker on behalf of all those present. Such individual, voluntary prayer is different not in degree but in kind from officially selected and sanctioned public prayer.

The Supreme Court first ruled against school-sponsored prayer in 1962 in Engel v. Vitale. Since then, the justices have consistently ruled against school-sponsored worship, while, rightly, permitting voluntary student-initiated religious activities. The Santa Fe case began in 1995 when the parents of two students — one Roman Catholic and one Mormon — sued their Texas school district in federal court following adoption of a policy allowing students to elect a classmate to deliver a prayer over the stadium's public address system prior to football games. The federal court struck down this school-sponsored, student-led prayer, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed last November to hear the appeal.

Note to Editors: Rabbi David Saperstein teaches church/state law at Georgetown University Law Center. He is available for comment.

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing its 895 congregations across North America, whose membership includes 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the 1700 rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.



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