Members of the school board in Liberal, Kan., missed official prayer at high school football games, so they recently voted unanimously to allow student-led prayers using the school’s loudspeakers.
But there’s a slight hitch in the school board’s plan: The Supreme Court actually banned the practice in 2000.
In Sante Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, the high court ruled that prayer, even when supposedly student-led, violates the First Amendment if given over the school’s loudspeakers at football games. Specifically, the court found that students should not be forced to choose between attending a game and encountering a “personally offensive religious ritual.”
It’s unclear if Liberal’s school board even knows the ruling exists. Members rushed ahead with the vote without consulting their own legal counsel, despite the recommendation of the district’s superintendent, Paul Larkin.
“We can have student-led prayer, but if we turn away certain groups – if you have someone who wants to serve up a prayer or a thought that isn’t the mainstream thinking – you’re going to have a problem,” Larkin warned board members. “The thing to do is take it to [board attorney] Mr. Yoxall and get some advice.”
But righteous conviction trumped common sense, and the board went ahead with the vote.
Board members seem unduly confident about their decision.
“I think that’s one of the greatest things we’ve ever done,” boasted member Nick Hatcher. “We do live in a democratic society, and I personally feel like our community would support that decision, regardless of the rest of the world.”
Hatcher might be partially correct. The decision to allow these prayers over the school’s loudspeakers might be greeted with joy by many members of Liberal’s population, but it certainly wouldn’t be a unanimous reaction. There are always outliers, even in small-town America, although you wouldn’t know it from the board’s rhetoric.
That’s exactly why the Supreme Court’s ruling is so important. The majority decision recognized the need to protect religious minorities, especially students. The justices found that high school students are especially vulnerable and deserve special protection because they face such intense social pressure to conform.
The abuse faced by the suit’s anonymous plaintiffs reveals just how severe the consequences can be for students who don’t conform. Church-state expert Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia represented the plaintiffs in the Santa Fe case. He points out that they received a steady barrage of violent threats. Someone even killed their dog.
Laycock says this violent treatment is commonplace for anyone who opposes these dogmatic small-town rulings. “Plaintiffs in these cases get death threats,” he said. “They get harassed and retaliated against at school.”
It’s unlikely that Liberal’s school board wishes such abusive treatment on the town’s non-Christian students. But their rash decision could certainly set the stage for abuse by officially marginalizing anyone with beliefs outside the mainstream.
As AU’s Rob Boston told The American Prospect, that this isn’t a hard case.
“I’ll admit, there are some areas in church-state relations where the law is kind of gray,” said Boston. “This isn’t one of them. All of the legal precedent backs us up.”
The First Amendment isn’t designed merely to protect majority opinions. It’s designed to protect minorities, too, and that’s precisely why the Supreme Court ruled against prayer over loudspeakers at football games. The school board’s decision won’t stand up in court, and it shouldn’t.