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Prayer patrol

Law | Lawyers fight back after police bar students from quietly praying on the Supreme Court steps

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

Maureen Rigo teaches American history to junior high students at Wickenburg Christian Academy in Arizona. This year, on the eve of National Prayer Day, she led 15 students and seven adults on a class trip to Washington, D.C., where they took a tour of the Supreme Court building. After taking pictures on the steps of the Oval Plaza, the group gathered to the side of the steps where Rigo led it in quiet prayer. A Supreme Court police officer told the group it had to stop.

Why? Praying in that place was against the law, he said, citing Section 6135 of Title 40 of the United States Code, which says parades and processions are forbidden on Supreme Court grounds. Even though the group was praying quietly and not in a way meant to attract attention, the officer said the law applied. The group moved to the sidewalk, forcing most of the students to stand in a gutter to finish their prayer. The Alliance Defense Fund sent a letter to Supreme Court officials insisting that conversational level prayers be permitted on court grounds, arguing that to find otherwise would be a clear violation of the First Amendment.

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Judging DOMA

Since 2004, Massachusetts has recognized more than 15,000 same-sex marriages-but the national Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denies such couples federal benefits afforded to heterosexual couples. Now, federal District Judge Joseph Tauro has found part of DOMA unconstitutional for violating the equal protection clause by treating same-sex couples differently than heterosexual couples, and also intruding upon the state's authority to define marriage. Tauro compared the same-sex marriage issue to the tumultuous debate surrounding interracial marriages more than four decades ago, drawing no distinction between the two.

Presently, Tauro's holding only applies to Massachusetts' same-sex couples. Implications of this decision for other states will be seen on appeal-if the federal government decides to appeal. It is the duty of the Department of Justice to defend the constitutionality of DOMA, yet President Obama favors its repeal.

Theological braids

Adriel Arocha's sixth day of kindergarten was special: The 5-year-old Native American garnered an in-school suspension for wearing his hair in two long braids. That did not fit the grooming policy at Needville Elementary, which says boys' hair can't cover their ears or collars. The school district said Adriel could either wear a single braid tucked into the back of his shirt or roll his braids into a bun.

Adriel's lawyers argued that his never-cut hair is an exercise of his religious beliefs as a Native American, and that part of those beliefs is that the braids be visible to the public. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, striking the policy under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA). Texas was one of 14 states to pass its own religious freedom restoration act after the United States Supreme Court determined the federal RFRA did not apply to the states.
Lauren Sneed is a lawyer living in Austin, Texas.

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