Federal judge upholds bar against religious messages in commencement speeches

Thursday, December 17, 1998

A federal judge in California on Monday dismissed a lawsuit brought by two public high school students who were barred by school officials from praying during their commencement speeches.

In June two high school seniors in Oroville, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, were prevented by school officials from including prayers and calls to accept God in their commencement speeches. The two students, both officers in a Christian club at school, were chosen because of their grades and by classmates to give speeches. The students sued the school district in federal court, arguing their free-speech and religious-liberty rights had been violated.

Oroville Union School District Superintendent Barry Kayrell testified before the federal court that the students’ religious messages were barred because they amounted to proselytization, therefore violating the First Amendment’s call for separation of church and state.

In dismissing the students’ suit, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton agreed with school officials, citing case law that says public school graduation ceremonies are not public forums and that public school administrators have more leeway in controlling student speech at school-sponsored events, such as graduation.

School officials had a legitimate concern to keep the commencement exercises free from comments that could “offend or intrude upon the religious sensibilities of other students,” Karlton said, according to a Sacramento Bee report this week.

Federal court rulings regarding the proper place for religious messages in public school graduation ceremonies are mixed. In some school districts students can offer a prayer at commencement as long as it is student-led with no school involvement. In other districts, however, if the prayer is chosen by and led by students, it is still seen as unconstitutional.

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a Providence, R.I., policy of permitting clergy to give invocations at public high school graduations.

Justice William Kennedy, writing for the majority in Lee v. Weisman, said that school officials must not encourage or mandate prayer during graduation ceremonies.

“The undeniable fact is that the school district’s supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places public pressure, as well as peer pressure, on attending students to stand as a group, or, at least, maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction,” Kennedy wrote. “This pressure, though subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion.”

Kennedy stated that the Rhode Island school officials’ decision to include prayer in the graduation ceremonies amounted to a violation of separation of church and state. “The prayer exercises in this case are especially improper because the state has in every sense compelled attendance and participation in an explicit religious exercise at an event of singular importance to every student, one the objecting student had no real alternative to avoid.”

In 1995 President Clinton and the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines regarding religious expression in the public schools. The guidelines were created after examining federal court cases and consulting a wide array of religious-liberty experts.

“Under current Supreme Court decisions, school officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation, nor organize religious baccalaureate ceremonies,” the guidelines state. “If a school generally opens its facilities to private groups, it must make its facilities available on the same terms to organizers of privately sponsored religious baccalaureate services. A school may not extend preferential treatment to baccalaureate ceremonies and may in some instances be obliged to disclaim official endorsement of such ceremonies.”