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Federal appeals court reinstates Texas prayer case

By The Associated Press

04.15.02

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HOUSTON — A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court's ruling as well as its own dismissing a case involving school prayer at the Santa Fe Independent School District.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on April 9 sent the 1999 lawsuit filed by then-Santa Fe senior Marian Ward back to the Houston court of U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, who dismissed the case in August 2000.

Ward's suit argued the school district had no right to prevent her from leading a prayer before Santa Fe High School football games.

She contended a public school could not discriminate against a religious message when other students are free to give secular messages in the same forum.

But Lake decided the suit was moot because of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 2000 related to another Santa Fe prayer case. In that case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the high court ruled the school district's policy of allowing student-led prayers at campus events violated the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

Lake also dismissed the suit because Ward had already graduated and Santa Fe had dropped its disputed prayer policy by the time it came before his court.

The appeals court initially agreed with Lake's ruling. But it reversed itself last week, saying that case law indicates such suits shouldn't be entirely dismissed if a person is making a claim for "nominal damages" for the constitutional violation allegedly suffered.

"We conclude that our prior opinion was in error insofar as we held that Marian Ward's claim for nominal damages was moot," the court's ruling read.

Ward, who is now a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, was pleased by the ruling.

"I'm glad that I will finally be able to get a decision on the merits of my case which will hopefully help schools understand that it is just as unconstitutional to prohibit student faith-based speech as to require it," she said.

School district officials did not return a call for comment from the Associated Press.

The Santa Fe case decided by the Supreme Court was brought by four students and their parents who sued the district in 1995 over its policy of letting students elect a "chaplain" to lead prayers at graduation ceremonies and home football games.

Santa Fe is about 35 miles southeast of Houston.

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