Two wins, one loss for religion in schools as Supreme Court releases hundreds of actions
A busy day for Supreme Court yesterday: it released hundreds of decisions. Of course, almost all of those decisions were not to make decisions at all, letting lower courts' decisions stand. Three had to do with religion in schools.

The only case that the court made any comment on was Sally Campbell v. St. Tammany's School Board.

In June 1998, the Louisiana Christian Coalition attempted to use school facilities for a prayer meeting in which it would "worship the Lord in prayer and music … discuss family and political issues, pray about those issues, and seek to engage in religious and Biblical instruction with regard to those issues." But the district turned the request down, citing a policy banning nonstudent uses involving religious worship or religious instruction (though it said it did allow for religious discussion). A district court ruled for the Louisiana Christian Coalition, saying the policy was unconstitutionally vague because it's too hard to tell when discussion becomes instruction. In March 2000, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the school district, saying the wording was "not even arguably vague," and that the district rightly discriminated "based on content, not viewpoint." The Supreme Court, however, disagreed. It vacated the judgment and sent it back to the 5th Circuit "for further consideration in light of Good News Club v. Milford Central School." In that case, decided last week, the Supreme Court said that when a New York school district denied an evangelistic club "access to the school's limited public forum on the ground that the club was religious in nature, it discriminated against the club because of its religious viewpoint in violation of the free-speech clause of the First Amendment."

But vacating judgments and sending them back to lower courts doesn't necessarily mean that the lower court is going to flip its earlier decision on its head. In fact, another of the cases the Supreme Court decided yesterday not to rule on was making its second appearance before the justices. Michael Chandler, a former high school vice principal in DeKalb County, Alabama, had sued the governor of the state and others over a 1993 law allowing student-led prayers at football games and other sports events, assemblies, graduations, or other school-related ceremonies—even over school public-address systems. As you may remember, the Supreme Court ruled last year in a Texas case that student-led public prayer before high school football games was unconstitutional. Since the Alabama case so closely resembled the Texas case, the court sent Chandler's case back to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals—which had earlier ruled against Chandler—"for further consideration." The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals took further consideration, and still ruled against Chandler—this time on different grounds. "Santa Fe condemns school sponsorship of student prayer," the court ruled. The Chandler decision, however, "condemns school censorship of student prayer. In their view of the proper relationship between school and prayer, the cases are complementary rather than inconsistent." Apparently that was good enough for the Supreme Court; the opinion stands.

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In the third religion-in-the-schools case before the Supreme Court, religion didn't fare as well. Zachary Hood, a first-grader at a Medford, N.J., public elementary school, wanted to read a story about Jacob and Esau from The Beginners Bible. The story didn't have any references to God, but Zachary's teacher and principal wouldn't let him read it on the grounds that it "might influence other students" and that it would be "the equivalent of praying." Both a federal judge and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals supported the school (though the appeals court was split 6-6). The Supreme Court let that decision stand, too.

So, given all these decisions, what does the Supreme Court really think about religion? Weblog has discussed at length recent newspaper editorials on the subject, but missed a great column by the ChicagoTribune's Steve Chapman. Liberals decried the Good News decision, conservatives decried last year's football prayer decision. "How can one Supreme Court be the target of such different indictments?" he asks.

Simple: by taking seriously the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Sometimes people forget that it contains not one but two commands concerning religion. One guarantees religious freedom. The other forbids government sponsorship of religion. … The Supreme Court has done an admirable job of negotiating the slippery path of neutrality. That, of course, is why it finds itself abused by people who think the government has a duty to bring us all the blessings of faith or an obligation to protect us from religious zealotry. The court hasn't spawned critics on either side of the divide because it's been getting things wrong, but because it's been getting things right.

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