Original story at: Fox News

A federal appeals court throws out Louisiana's law allowing the choice of prayer in government schools.

Louisiana School Prayer Law Tossed by Federal Appeals Court
Tuesday, December 11, 2001

NEW ORLEANS A federal appeals court on Tuesday threw out Louisiana's school prayer law, which evolved from allowing a moment of silent meditation in 1976 to permitting spoken prayer in public classrooms.

On a 3-0 vote, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district judge who declared the 1999 law unconstitutional. State attorneys had asked the 5th Circuit to reinstate the law.

Fifteen years ago, the Legislature voted to allow a moment of silent mediation for students. A 1992 amendment allowed silent prayer. In 1999, the word " silent " was dropped from the law.

In a historic 1961 ruling, the high court said that official school prayers represent a state-sanctioned religion, violating religious minorities' rights and the constitutional separation of church and state.

In other rulings, the court has struck down voluntary prayer, saying that religious minorities are under pressure and can be harassed if they choose not to participate.

Religious groups have long contended that the Supreme Court's ruling violates the First Amendment rights of students who want to pray.

The suit was filed by a parent in Ouachita Parish, identified only as Jane Doe, who alleged that her son and another boy were called " atheist " and " devil worshipper " after they refused to participate in a prayer.

In striking down the law, U.S. District Judge Robert James of Monroe rejected the state's contention that the statute is " neutral " towards religion and does not have a secular purpose -- two of the standards used by the U.S. Supreme Court in weighing the constitutionality of such disputes.

The 5th Circuit agreed and also rejected the state's contention that the complaining parent did not have legal standing to pursue the suit because the family did not suffer a direct injury from the law.

" The plain language and nature of the 1999 amendment as well as the legislators' contemporaneous statements demonstrate that the sole purpose of the amendment was to return verbal prayer to the public schools, " the 5th Circuit said.

The 5th Circuit also rejected the state's contention that the complaining parent did not have legal standing to pursue the suit

A week after James' ruling, the Ouachita Parish School Board voted to stop student-led prayers over the intercom at West Monroe High in a settlement reached with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The state attorney general could not be reached for immediate comment Tuesday.

Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana American Civil Liberties, which filed the suit along with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the ACLU testified before a legislative committee in 1999 that the law would be unconstitutional.

" Once again, the Louisiana Legislature has passed an unconstitutional law, resulting in local governments, in this case a school board, spending money that could have been better used to educate our children, " Cook said. " The purpose of the Legislature was to defy Supreme Court rulings of long standing. "