Ruling in a celebrated dispute in Mississippi, a federal appeals court Wednesday struck down most, but not all, of a state law that allows student-led prayers at school assemblies and sports events.
The decision, by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans, permits students to lead prayer only at graduation ceremonies - a practice that court had upheld earlier and refused to reconsider Wednesday.
The rest of the ruling appeared to be broader than any federal court decision so far against prayers that students choose to recite at school-sponsored gatherings.
No matter what test of constitutionality of government aid to religion is used, the circuit court said, the Mississippi law fails all of them.
Mississippi’s Legislature passed the law in 1994 in reaction to a furor in Jackson, Miss., after a high school principal was fired for letting students recite a prayer over the intercom.
Students staged vigils to protest the firing; the principal later was reinstated.
Under the Mississippi law that was mostly nullified by the circuit court, school officials must allow “studentinitiated voluntary prayer” not identified with any particular religious sect at both compulsory and voluntary “student assemblies, student sporting events, graduation or commencement ceremonies and other school-related student events.”
The circuit court said that the law clearly was an effort by the state government “to advance prayer in public schools.” Besides passing the law, the Legislature also passed a resolution to praise the Jackson high school principal for “unswerving devotion to prayer in public schools.”