December 1999 AU Bulletin

Supreme Court Accepts Football Prayer Case From Texas

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a controversy from Texas dealing with invocations before public school football games, a move that puts the issue of school prayer back on the high court docket after a seven-year absence.

The case challenges the Santa Fe Independent School District's policy of permitting students to lead prayers over a public address system before football games and graduations. It was brought in 1995 by two anonymous families, one Roman Catholic and the other Mormon, who protested the practice.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the policy last year as it applied to football games, holding that while student-led prayers before public school graduations are permissible due to the serious nature of the occasion, athletic contests do not merit such solemnizing practices.

The Supreme Court has agreed to accept only the part of the case dealing with prayers before football games, although its decision could be broad enough to affect other types of school-sponsored events. The high court has not heard a school prayer case since 1992's Lee v. Weisman. In that decision, the court ruled 5-4 that public schools may not sponsor clergy-led prayers at graduation.

The new case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, will be argued next year, with a decision expected by late June or early July. Look for more details in next month's issue of Church & State.

Ohio School Voucher Order Placed On Hold

Voucher boosters won a minor victory in November when the Supreme Court placed a hold on a lower court order restricting Cleveland's religious school voucher program.

Granting a plea from Ohio officials, the justices ruled 5-4 that a federal district court's preliminary injunction against the voucher scheme would be lifted while the matter is argued in the courts. Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer wanted the injunction left in place, while Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist voted to suspend it.

Voucher opponents described the Supreme Court's Nov. 5 action in Simmons-Harris v. Zelman as unfortunate, but of little long-term impact.

"The Supreme Court's action is disappointing," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "But it has little significance in the ongoing battle over voucher aid to religious schools. Courts often allow programs to continue operation while legal issues are debated. Since the Cleveland program has been under way for some time, this simply allows it to continue while the constitutional issues are thrashed out in court."

Americans United and other civil liberties and educational groups filed suit against the Cleveland voucher program, charging that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. On Aug. 24, U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. agreed and issued a preliminary injunction ordering a halt to tuition aid to religious schools. Because the action came just before the beginning of the school year, Oliver later stayed part of his own order, allowing current program participants to attend religious schools at state expense through the semester, but barring new admissions to the plan.

Ohio officials asked a federal appeals court to overturn Oliver's order. When the appellate panel did not act quickly enough, the officials went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

TV Preacher Robertson Urges Revolt Against High Court

Religious broadcaster and Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson added to his record of radical rhetoric Nov. 7 when he urged his national television audience to revolt against the Supreme Court.

After a news segment on his A700 Club" program about school districts posting the Ten Commandments, Robertson railed against the Supreme Court's church-state separation rulings and told viewers to "throw off the shackles off this dictatorship that's been imposed on us."

"If the people of the United States of America C all across America, in their churches and in their civic groups and in their legislatures C decide that they're not going to allow the Supreme Court to dominate their lives in the fashion that it has in this nation, the Supreme Court does not have the power to change that," Robertson said. "They are not going to be able to overturn the will of a hundred million American people."

Meanwhile, there are new signs that Robertson's Christian Coalition is still going through turmoil. On Nov. 5, the Coalition announced that it is closing its headquarters in Chesapeake, Va., and relocating to the Washington, D.C., suburbs in Northern Virginia.

The Christian Coalition is still millions of dollars in debt and has lost several key staff persons in the last year, leading many observers to see the move as another sign of serious institutional problems.

Oklahoma Textbook Panel Wants Evolution Warnings

The Oklahoma State Textbook Committee has voted to add disclaimers to public school biology textbooks cautioning students that evolution is a "controversial theory."

On Nov. 5, committee member John Dickman introduced the proposal, arguing that the textbooks under review focused too much on evolutionary biology. "Some of us on the committee wanted to send a strong statement to the publishers that we are fed up with textbooks that only present one side of the story," Dickman told the Tulsa World.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has warned officials that they are treading on constitutionally dubious ground. In a Nov. 11 letter to Secretary of Education Floyd Coppedge, AU Executive Director Barry Lynn observed, "It would be inappropriate and illegal for the public school system to alter its curriculum to appease adherents of one segment of Christianity..... This gambit should be rejected in Oklahoma."

It is unclear if the textbook committee has the authority to make the proposed change. The committee is responsible for reviewing texts for Oklahoma's 540 public school districts. While local districts have their own textbook committees, only books approved by the state panel may be purchased.

In related news, the Kanawha County Board of Education, home to West Virginia's largest school system, is scheduled to consider a proposal in December that would reverse a ban on teaching creationism in the community's public schools. The proposal, introduced by school board member Betty Jarvis, would nullify a 1987 policy that says, "creation science is not to be taught."

Parochial School Tax Credit Challenged In Illinois

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, along with eight other education and civil rights organizations, has filed a legal challenge to a new tuition tax credit law in Illinois.

Beginning in 2000, the measure provides Illinois taxpayer with up to $500 in income tax credits for money spent on tuition, book and lab fees at private or public schools.  

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 4 in Sangamon County Circuit Court, questions the constitutionality of the law on the basis that it overwhelmingly benefits taxpayers who send their children to private religious schools. Specifically, the lawsuit contends that the law violates several sections of the Illinois Constitution. In addition, the suit contends that the tuition tax credit favor rich taxpayers over those with low incomes.

"This tax credit scheme is clearly designed to subsidize private religious education," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "We are optimistic that the courts will strike down this misguided program on constitutional grounds."

N.Y. Art Censorship Rejected By Federal Court

A federal court has ruled that New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani cannot legally punish the Brooklyn Museum of Art with budget cuts and eviction proceedings because of his opposition to a controversial exhibit.

In a 38-page ruling Nov. 1, U.S. District Court Judge Nina Gershon issued an injunction against the city ordering Giuliani to restore the museum's budget and end efforts to evict the institution from its current location.

"There is no federal constitutional issue more grave," Gershon observed, "than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy."

The controversy began in September when the museum opened an exhibit titled "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," featuring pieces some found offensive on religious grounds, including a painting of the Virgin Mary that includes an element of elephant dung.

Ten Commandments Controversy Erupts In Kentucky

Several counties in Kentucky have decided to ignore Supreme Court precedent and post the Ten Commandments in public schools. Officials in seven counties C Rowan, Jackson, Harlan, Pike, Russell, Knott and Perry C have either put the Decalogue on display or announced plans to do so.

To express support for government endorsement of the Commandments, thousands turned out for a "Restore the Law, Restore the Glory" rally in Corbin, Ky., on Nov. 7.

"We've been on the defensive long enough," Ferrel Morris, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Corbin, told the crowd. "It is time we got on the offensive."

The Corbin gathering was the first of several similar rallies. A statewide rally is scheduled Nov. 16 at Frankfort, followed by additional events Dec. 5 in Henderson and Dec. 12 in Bowling Green.

In 1980, the Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law allowing public schools to post the Ten Commandments. In light of this precedent, legal observers expect the Kentucky counties involved with this controversy to be sued.

The activities in Kentucky coincide with an aggressive push on the part of Religious Right groups to have government endorse the Ten Commandments at every level. The Family Research Council, for example, has begun a national campaign it calls "Hang Ten," which encourages schools, courthouses, and other government buildings to post the Decalogue. As part of the effort, the FRC has distributed 100,000 Ten Commandments book covers to students and has gotten 44 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to agree to post the Commandments in their congressional offices.

China Approves New Law Restricting 'Cults'

The Chinese government's crackdown on the Falun Gong religious movement has escalated, with a new round of arrests, a new "anti-cult" law and the strongest denunciation against the group yet from government officials.

The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislative body, passed a law Oct. 30 intended to advance the government's efforts to eliminate Falun Gong, a movement that preaches a combination of traditional Chinese exercise and meditation with ideas from Buddhism and Taoism. The vote in the legislative body was 114 to 0.