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Supreme Court cites summer Texas ruling in returning prayer case to lower court


WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court has canceled a lower-court ruling in favor of a Florida school district’s policy permitting prayer at graduation and instructed the same judges to reconsider the case in light of a controversial decision by the justices this summer.

The high court, acting Oct. 2 on the first day of its new term, set aside an opinion by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that found as constitutional a Duval County School Board policy allowing a student selected by his peers to offer a two-minute message at graduation. The student may give a secular or religious message. The school may not preview or censor the message. The full panel of the appeals court approved the policy in a 10-2 vote.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the 11th Circuit for reconsideration on the basis of the high court’s decision in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. In its June ruling in that case, the justices voted 6-3 against a policy in a Galveston County, Texas, school district that permitted the high school student body to determine if it wanted a student to speak over the public-address system before football games. If so, the students elected the speaker, who determined whether he would pray or give some other message.

Matt Staver, president of Liberty Counsel and the lawyer defending the policy allowing a student graduation message in the schools of Jacksonville, Fla., predicted the case would return to the Supreme Court. The appeals court made a distinction between the two policies, and he is confident it “will come to the same decision,” Staver said in a written release.

The case is Adler v. Duval County School Board.

In the Santa Fe case, the Supreme Court said such prayers violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion. “The delivery of such a message — over the school’s public-address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer — is not properly characterized as ‘private’ speech,” Associate Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, however, sharply criticized the decision, calling it unfaithful to the establishment clause in both its ruling and tone. The majority “distorts existing precedent” to reach its conclusion, which “bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life,” Rehnquist wrote in his dissenting opinion.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, joined others at the time who advocate government accommodation of religious expression and were critical of the high court’s ruling.
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