Mississippi School Prayer Law Illegal

On Friday, September 2, a federal district judge ruled that a state law approving school prayer was overbroad and hence unconstitutional.

At issue was a state law approved on April 8 by Gov. Kirk Fordice, a school prayer advocate. The law allowed prayer at public school events if there are:

"non-sectarian and non-proselytizing voluntary benedictions, invocations or prayers, which are initiated and given by a student volunteer."

The law took effect July 1 and was an expansion of a 1979 state law protecting "voluntary prayer" in classrooms. Immediately, the state chapter of the ACLU and People for the American Way sued on behalf of 14 parents and students to have the law ruled unconstitutional.

Deciding the case, U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate noted that:

"The statute at issue here is the most far-reaching one this court has encountered in its research. The aim of Mississippi's school prayer statute is to permit prayer at virtually any and all school-related activities."
Judge Wingate also made the point that "If students are subjected to prayer in a 'captive audience' situation, the state, although not officially delivering the prayer, may be effectively coercing students who do not wish to hear or participate in prayer."

The other problems Wingate noted with the law were that (1) it was vague because it does not define prayer or school-related activities, (2) there are no instructions for implementing the statute, and (3) there are no accommodations made in the law for nonparticipating students. The decision does not affect prayer at school sporting events in Mississippi, as the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (which overs Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas) has already ruled that student-initiated prayer at football games and such is constitutional.

According to the attorney general's office, the district court's decision will be appealed.

The adoption of the Mississippi law was spurred by the dismissal of a school principle who allowed prayers to be read over a school intercom. His excuse was that the students had voted for the prayers.

Sources: American Atheist Newsletter (May 1994), AP (9/2/94)