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Galveston lawyer Anthony Griffin made his mark this year as he successfully argued a high-profile case — one being watched by the nation — in his first trip to the U.S. Supreme Court. His victory in Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District helped to further define the complex free-speech issues in school prayer cases. At issue in Santa Fe was a school’s practice of allowing prayer by a student, selected by popular vote, over the public address system at high school football games. “The delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. But the 6-3 ruling came with some indignant differing opinions. “It bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in his stinging dissent. Griffin, 46, says that one sentence has become an often-repeated rallying cry for those who favor school prayer. But Griffin says the public’s right to pray is unaffected by the ruling. He says the ability of a school district to impose that prayer on the public is what’s limited. Griffin says he took the case after getting a call from the American Civil Liberties Union. He says the ACLU was having a hard time finding a lawyer to take it. “It was the right thing to do, I guess,” Griffin says of accepting the case. In it, he represented two parents and their four children in the Santa Fe district who opposed the football prayer practice. Professor Sidney Buchanan of the University of Houston Law Center, a specialist in constitutional law and First Amendment rights, says Santa Fe‘s impact is significant in that it sets separate standards for public prayer for minors and adults. “At the K through 12 level, if government can be said to be sponsoring the prayer, then it’s going to be a prohibited establishment of religion,” Buchanan says. He says “a certain type of what we might call legislative prayer” — prayer at levels of government involving adults, such as at universities, city councils, etc. — is being permitted. In the case of minors in school, Buchanan says the Santa Fe ruling continues a doctrine of viewing young students as having “malleable minds.” And it continues a related doctrine of parents — in this case, parents of children with religious beliefs that conflict with the prayer being offered — being able to protect their children. Prayers over the public address system at football games were halted in the wake of the Santa Fe ruling. Ironically, an effort by the crowd to simply pray out loud at the first game after the ruling was, by most accounts, drowned out by game-related announcements over the public address system. NEXT SEASON Griffin says he is interested in seeing what the next football season brings, when a new team takes the field and everybody has a fresh start on the issue of prayer at the games. But he believes the die has been firmly cast on school prayer. There are, for example, cases pending in the court system involving prayer at graduation ceremonies. Griffin says the likely outcomes should stay in tune with Santa Fe. While Griffin was a rookie in this case, making his first appearance before the Supreme Court, his opponent was not. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice, a group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, has argued before the high court nine times. Griffin’s victory was Sekulow’s first loss. Griffin alleges the opposition underestimated and disrespected him. But Sekulow says he always viewed Griffin as a worthy foe and doesn’t understand the complaint about disrespect. Griffin says he prepared for his first argument before the Supreme Court by spending hundreds of hours reading by himself. And he turned to lawyers with experience at the high court, such as University of Texas School of Law Professor Douglas Laycock and the ACLU’s Steven Shapiro. Griffin was fired in 1993 from his position as chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Texas for representing the Ku Klux Klan. Griffin insists everyone, even those with a message he opposes, has the constitutional right to assembly and free speech. A 1978 graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, Griffin, of the Law Firm of Anthony Griffin, opened his small firm that year and now works with one associate. Griffin says one-third of his practice involves constitutional and civil rights issues. He was handling three different cases, one in Houston and two others in Galveston, on June 19 when the Santa Fe ruling was handed down by the high court. His office was closed in observance of “Juneteenth” and Griffin says the day is as sharp as ever in his memory. But he says he was so busy that he never really had the time to savor properly the accomplishment of winning before the Supreme Court. And he’d like to get paid. After prevailing, Griffin says he submitted a legal expense report to the court requesting about $500,000 in attorney’s fees. The defendants are contesting that bill. “They’re saying I’m not worth that kind of money,” Griffin says. “I may get paid; I may not.” Bracewell & Patterson’s Lisa Brown, who represents the school district, says reasonable fees and billable hours call for the prevailing legal team to receive approximately $177,000. Among many issues, Brown alleges Griffin apparently spent more time preparing for arguments before the high court than would be customary. The legal-fees case is pending before U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon in Houston. Bill Jeffreys is a Houston freelance writer.

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