Pryor: ‘Prayer at Pole’ protected

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 21, 2000

Sept. 20, 2000 10 PM

Earlier this week, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor issued a memorandum to all city and county school superintendents clarifying the rights of public school students to hold "flagpole" prayer meetings.

In that message to superintendents, Pryor stated the "See You at the Pole" meetings planned for Wednesday were "fully protected by the First Amendment" of the United States Constitution.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

"Just as public school officials should not encourage, organize or direct ‘See You at the Pole’ gatherings, they should do nothing to prohibit or discourage ‘See You at the Pole’ gatherings," Pryor advised the superintendents.

The memo specifically addressed questions regarding the June 19 ruling by the U.S. Supreme COurt in the Texas case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.

"In its decision, the Supreme Court went out of its way to reiterate that ‘nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during or after the school day,’" Pryor said.

The Guidelines for Religious Activities in Schools issued by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office on July 29 are in accord with that declaration by the court, Pryor said, stating "students may voluntarily engage in individual or group prayer during non-instructional time or at school-sponsored events."

The restriction set by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Doe case applies to situations where, in the court’s words, "the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer."

Pryor said his guidelines provide protection against such situations, stressing again that "school officials…should neither encourage nor discourage individual or group prayer."

The attorney general’s guidelines comply with the standard set the Supreme Court in the Santa Fe case, Pryor said.

"Organization or direction of a prayer by a school official would not be appropriate; this also means that school officials should not hold a students election for the purpose of choosing a student to give a prayer at a school-sponsored event."

In its own guidelines, the U.S. Department of Education specifies that students may participate in religious events before or after school ­ giving flag pole gatherings as an example ­ on the same terms as other non curriculum activities on school grounds.

"In fact, a broad spectrum of religious and civil liberties organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, stated in the 1995 publication Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law, that "student participation in before or after school events, such as ‘See You at the Pole,’ is permissible. School officials acting in an official capacity, may neither discourage nor encourage participation in such an event."

Alabama’s public schools "have every right to voluntarily and independently choose to meet at the flagpole this Wednesday morning to pray," Pryor stated in his memo to school officials across the state.

"Even the ACLU has conceded this obvious and simple conclusion," Pryor said.