The rights of the few

Elton Wong

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court began to hear a case concerning prayer in public schools.

The case involves the school district of Santa Fe, a small suburb of Houston where churches outnumber restaurants.

At issue is whether or not public school districts can allow students to initiate and lead prayers over public-address systems before the football games.

The lawsuit was filed by two families, one Catholic and one Mormon.

According to, their lawsuit alleged that the school district’s policy of allowing students to lead prayers at home football games violated the First Amendment by creating a “pervasive religious atmosphere.”

Although the town of Santa Fe is characterized by the Christian beliefs of its residents, some members understand the motivation behind the lawsuit.

If the prayer is upheld, “it probably will destroy my faith in the Constitution and what this country stands for,” said Debbie Mason, a Baptist who testified for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“The very fact that the people who have complained have had to remain anonymous is one indicator that their community has been quite hostile to them,” said Melissa Rogers of the Baptist Joint Committee.

On the majority side, Jay Sekulow, the attorney for the Santa Fe School District, argues that the school allowed “for speech that was a … secular message or an invocation. So it’s neutral on its face. It says, ‘Say whatever you want to say.'”

It is said that the job of the Supreme Court is to decide what is constitutional and what is not. In this case, the deliberation will likely center around the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

One thing that is important to remember in constitutional debates is that the Constitution itself is not very specific.

The First Amendment mentions both freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

The pro-prayer students from Santa Fe can claim that a ban on prayer at football games infringes on their right to freedom of religion.

This is a violation of the first amendment.

The anti-prayer students can say that by sponsoring prayer, the state is actually favoring one religion over another.

This is also a violation.

When the constitution itself seems to support both sides in a dispute, how do we decide which side is correct?

It would help to realize that in this case, neither side can be “more constitutional.”

For instance, the last Supreme Court ruling on school prayer came in 1992, when it barred clergy-led invocations and benedictions at graduation ceremonies.

This ruling is often summarized as defending the separation of church and state.

However, how was the court so sure that this ruling did not infringe on the freedom of speech of the clergy?

Was the court stifling the right of religious students to express themselves at graduation?

Because the Constitution is vague and sometimes leads to conflicts between rights, interpretation is necessary.

Interpretation invariably involves bringing in “outside” values. Because the Constitution alone cannot settle the matter, the court must consider past rulings and law, as well as whatever moral principles they consider to be pertinent.

This has implications for the present case. Most people would like to think of the Supreme Court justices as impartially applying the ideas of the constitution to each case.

The truth is that each justice must essentially choose for himself or herself what the ruling will be.

This is not good or bad; it is an unavoidable result of basing our law on the Constitution.

The proper thing to do in this case is to explore different principles that we hold and appeal to these in making the right decision.

One pertinent value is the right of the minority to be free from domination of the majority. Another is the right of the majority to create institutions and act in a manner that reflects its beliefs.

Everyone recognizes the legitimacy of both of these ideals.

The question is how these values apply to the case at hand.

In this case, it seems more fair to ban prayer over the public address systems at public school functions.

This does result in limiting the freedom of the majority.

However, if the situation were reversed, how many Christian students from Santa Fe would support Buddhist meditation or a Wiccan prayer before football games, if they transferred to a school where these were the norm? It is likely that they would not react warmly to the idea.

Still, it is a complicated issue. We can clarify discussion on it by recognizing that both sides have the Constitution on their side.

In fact, both sides appeal to principles that are universally recognized.

After acknowledging this, we are better aware of what the debate consists of: the application of common values to a specific problem.

Formulated this way, the debate is less exciting than a black and white case of right and wrong.

But taking away the sensationalism allows us to see the problem more clearly and ultimately come up with a solution that is satisfying to as many people as possible.

Elton Wong is a junior in biology and philosophy from Ames.