A school district's policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violates the Establishment Clause of U.S. Const. amend. I.
Two sets of current or former students at a Texas public high school brought suit, for damages and declaratory and injunctive relief against a public school district. They alleged that the school district had maintained various policies and practices that violated the establishment of religion clause of the Federal Constitution's First Amendment such as allowing students to read overtly Christian prayers at graduation ceremonies and home football games. The District Court entered an interim order which provided, among other matters, that a nondenominational prayer could be presented by students at graduation. In response to the order, the school district adopted a policy, titled "Prayer at Football Games," which authorized two student elections, the first to determine whether "invocations" ought to be delivered at home games, and the second to select the student spokesperson to deliver such invocations. Pursuant to this policy, the high school students voted to allow such invocations and chose a spokesperson. A subsequent policy was adopted which was essentially the same as the previous one except that the title omitted the word "prayer" and it required others the invocations to be nonsectarian and nonproselytizing as well as a fallback provision to this effect. The District Court, although denying injunctive relief, ordered the school district to implement the fallback provision that required the invocations to be nonsectarian and nonproselytizing. The appellate court affirmed with modifications, holding that even the most recent policy violated the Establishment Clause.
Did the District's policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violate the Establishment Clause?
The Court affirmed, holding that the appellate court properly determined that petitioner's policies violated the Establishment Clause because the football game messages were public speech authorized by a government policy and taking place on government property at government-sponsored school-related events, and because the realities of petitioner's policy involved both perceived and actual government endorsement of the delivery of prayer at important school events. The student election also did nothing to protect minority views and even encouraged divisiveness along religious lines in a public school setting. The policies also involved perceived and actual endorsement of religion. Even if every high school student's decision to attend a home football game were regarded as purely voluntary, the delivery of a pregame prayer had the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship. The simple enactment of the policy was a facial constitutional violation, even if no student ever offered a religious message pursuant to the policy.