THE Supreme Court surprised many court watchers Wednesday when it banned nonsectarian religious invocations from public-school graduation ceremonies. These observers anticipated that the new conservative majority would use the case as an opportunity to rewrite constitutional law on the "establishment" of religion. Instead, the ruling adhered to the high court's 30-year prohibition on prayer in public schools.
In the case, a Jewish student and her father objected to a prayer offered by a rabbi, at the invitation of school officials, to open commencement exercises at a public middle school in Providence, R.I. The Supreme Court held that the invocation, with its references to God, breached the constitutional wall between church and state.
Despite the ruling's consistency with past decisions, however, the case may presage a shift in the justices' thinking on church-state issues. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, largely ignored a three-part test that the Supreme Court has relied on since 1971 in determining whether a government practice involved an unconstitutional sponsorship of religion. In fact Justice Kennedy and another member of Wednesday's majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, have criticized the "Lemon v. Kurt zman" test as too rigid.
Thus it may be that in future church-state cases outside the specialized public-school realm, the Supreme Court has readied itself to adopt a standard that is more accommodating to religious sensibilities and the nation's religious traditions.
We have long supported the separation of church and state as a protection to both institutions. Religion doesn't need - it thrives best without - government's imprimatur. But that doesn't mean that religion should never show its head in public. We aren't fully at ease with a judicial trend that sometimes seems antagonistic to all noncoercive and nonthreatening acknowledgments of religious values in public life. Perhaps the court is looking toward a more sympathetic balancing.