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Court Will Weigh Stadium Prayer

Thirty-eight years after the Supreme Court first banned organized prayer inside American classrooms, it decided Wednesday to consider the question of whether that ban applies to the football field as well, CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports.

What's unique about this case is that a student, not a teacher or administrator, did the praying.

High school senior Marian Ward became the focus of the case when she said a short prayer at a game two years ago at a football game in Sante Fe, Texas.

The Independent School District's policy was challenged in 1995 by four students and their parents. Their lawsuit also attacked the school district's policy of letting students lead prayers at graduation ceremonies.

Case History
On June 17, 1963, the Supreme Court issued a ruling covering two cases and effectively banned prayer from public schools.

The first case was Murray v. Curlett, in which a family in Baltimore, Maryland, objected to a school policy that forced their son to either listen to a Bible reading every day, or sit outside the classroom while it was going on.

In School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, the Schempp family objected to a Pennsylvania statute that required the reading of at least ten Bible verses at the opening of every public school day.

Rendering the decision, the majority wrote:
"No state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord's Prayer be recited in the public schools of a state at the beginning of each school dayeven if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents."

(Source: SCOTUS)

The case is considered a test of a growing practice before many high school football games, particularly in the South, of students electing one of their own to deliver a message before kickoff.

Today Ward sat in at the Court while her case was argued. It was clear from their questions that the Justices are divided on this one, their questions and comments alternately displaying concern for both church-state separation and students' free-speech rights.

Justice David H. Souter appeared most critical of a Texas school district's policy allowing pre-game prayers over a stadium's public address system. It "requires these students to sit there while a prayr is going on," he said.

A decision will be announced by late June.

As in many of the most divisive cases to confront the nine-member court, the votes of Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy may prove pivotal.

Both asked numerous questions and appeared troubled by the policy at issue.

"What we're concerned about is schools becoming a forum for religious debate," said Kennedy.

Not a problem, countered Justice Antonin Scalia. Allowing a student to deliver a "message or invocation" doesn't always mean "it's going to produce a prayer."

Texas officials say the fact that a student says the prayer makes it unofficial and non-religious.

"The student is the circuit breaker here," said Washington lawyer Jay Sekulow, defending the school district's policy, arguing that the policy does not involve government speech.

"The individual student makes the choice as to what the word or words are going to be," said Sekulow. "The message is up to the students. Let's not penalize them if they engage in religious speech. I think that's the crux of this case."

Texas Attorney General John Cornyn also urged the justices to reinstate the policy and avoid "viewpoint discrimination" against those who want their messages to be prayers.

But plaintiffs argue regardless of the structure, prayer at any school event is wrong because it ignores the religious preferences of the minority.

"It becomes a big deal when you are subjected to a vote where the majority wins and all of a sudden those who are Morman, those who are in the minority faith, are subject to the whims of the rest of us," said Anthony Griffin, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.