Circuit Court allows prayers at graduation if students lead

Sunday, March 26, 2000

To pray or not to pray? That's the question facing school officials as they take up the seasonal debate over prayer at graduation ceremonies.

A decision last week by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals answers the question in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama — the three states composing that circuit. Prayers may be offered at graduation, but only if they are entirely student-initiated and student-led.

The ruling upholds the practice in a Florida school district that allows the graduating class to decide which student will speak and whether or not there will be a prayer.

A similar result was reached in a Texas decision a number of years ago when the 5th Circuit Court upheld the practice of student prayer at graduation. In that case, the court ruled that the prayer is constitutional if students vote to have it. The prayer also must be given by a student and must be “nonsectarian” and “non-proselytizing” (whatever that means). These rules apply in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

What about states not in the 5th or 11th Circuits? Until the Supreme Court hears a case involving graduation prayer by students, the answer is unclear. The court ruled in 1992 that public schools may not organize or sponsor prayers at graduation, but it has not ruled on the constitutionality of prayers organized and led by students.

Schools in the other 44 states may try to follow the model of letting students decide, but they still risk losing a lawsuit. For example, a 1996 ruling by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals (New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania) held that student-initiated graduation prayer is unconstitutional.

Opponents of the Florida and Texas decisions argue that student-led prayers at graduation are unconstitutional because graduation remains a school-sponsored event and the audience is being coerced, however subtly, to participate in a religious exercise that some might find offensive.

Despite the threat of lawsuits, many school districts will be emboldened by the 11th Circuit decision to let students decide whether or not to have prayer at graduation. Schools that follow this model should ensure that school officials don't decide which student will speak or what the student will say.

Some constitutional lawyers argue that a legally safe approach would be to create a “free speech forum” at graduation, during which time students would be free to express themselves religiously or otherwise. Of course, such a forum would have to be open to all kinds of speech, including speech critical of religion or of the school.

Safer still would be a moment of silence at graduation. Prayers could be offered at a privately sponsored, voluntarily attended baccalaureate service. The school could announce the event and even allow it to be held on campus if other community groups were given similar privileges.

Until we have a clear Supreme Court ruling on student prayers at graduation, this area of the law will remain murky and unsettled for most school districts. Before doing anything, school officials would be well advised to seek legal counsel concerning the rules that apply in their state.