Office of the Attorney General News Release Archive

Wednesday, March 29, 2000


Defends the free speech rights of students

WASHINGTON, DC - Texas Attorney General John Cornyn today presented oral arguments before the US Supreme Court in Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District. The Attorney General asked the US Supreme Court to uphold the school district's policy of allowing a voluntary student message before football games in which the student can choose whether or not to include a prayer.

"When it comes to free speech, the government must remain neutral. It is not the government's role to play censor over the student's free speech," said Attorney General Cornyn. "We have over 1,000 school districts in Texas who want legal guidance on this issue. The Santa Fe policy should be our model. It neither endorses nor inhibits religion. It strikes a careful balance between the free speech rights of the students and maintains the separation of church and state," Cornyn continued.

The school district's policy allows the students to elect a representative to give a message-- which may or may not include a prayer--during the pre-game ceremonies of home varsity football games.

On February 26, 1999, a panel of three members of the Fifth Circuit held that these policies violated the First Amendment because they did not prohibit "sectarian" or "proselytizing" prayers by students. Although the Court held that the schools could allow students to deliver prayers at graduation as long as they are nonsectarian and nonproselytizing, the Court ruled that even student-initiated prayers are never permissible at school-sponsored football games. The Supreme Court, which rarely takes a case unless it is of great legal importance, agreed to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the school district's policy.

Last December, Attorney General Cornyn filed an Amici Curiae Brief with the Supreme Court which says that the state has "an interest in this case because the Fifth Circuit's decision will impose liability on states and other governmental entities for Establishment Clause violations despite the lack of any impermissible state action...Because officials cannot constitutionally censor student remarks to excise religious content, they will be forced to limit or close entirely existing forums for student speech." (Amici Brief on the Merits, p. 2)

"The Fifth Circuit's blanket prohibition on student-led, student-initiated religious speech at school football games, and indeed at any event outside the graduation context, would force school officials to engage in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination by censoring only religious speech. This violates the Court's repeated admonitions that, above all, the state must be neutral towards religion." (Amici Brief on the Merits, p. 4)

The US Supreme Court's opinion is expected by the end of their term in June.

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Contact Mark Heckmann, Heather Browne, or Tom Kelley at (512) 463-2050