Federal judge upholds policy of limiting prayer at high school graduations

Wednesday, June 23, 1999

For the second time a federal judge has ruled that a California public school district policy that limits prayer during high school commencement ceremonies is constitutional.

Last year an Oroville Union High School graduating senior, Chris Niemeyer, was barred by school officials from giving a commencement speech, in which he would have praised Jesus Christ and called upon his classmates and everyone else in the high school auditorium to “accept God’s love and grace” and “yield to God our lives and let Him direct our future paths.”

Niemeyer, represented by the conservative religious group the Rutherford Institute, sued the school district, alleging the school’s actions violated his free speech and free exercise of religion. In December U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton dismissed the claims against the Oroville school district, which is about 90 miles north of Sacramento.

The graduating senior’s claims, however, were amended to ask the court to prevent such actions from happening in the future and to add his brother, who graduated earlier this month, as a plaintiff.

Jason Niemeyer, like his brother Chris, wanted to give a sectarian prayer at his graduation from Oroville Union High School in June. On June 10, Karlton again sided with the school district’s right to bar sectarian messages from the high school’s graduation ceremonies.

The Rutherford Institute, on behalf of both Niemeyer brothers, argued before Karlton that the graduation ceremony was a place for student expression not to be limited by government authorities and that by removing the prayers from students’ graduating speeches, the school infringed on their right to practice their religious faith.

Relying on U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1992 and 1988, Karlton disagreed. In 1988, the court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school officials have greater control over student speech and in 1992 in Lee v. Weisman, the court ruled that public school officials could not encourage prayer during graduation ceremonies.

First Karlton noted that high schools are not traditional public forums, such as streets and parks, and therefore school officials retained great control over graduation ceremonies.

“Here, OHS holds its graduation ceremony on land owned by the District, students and their parents must sign a behavior contract with the District before they may attend the graduation ceremony, welcoming remarks and introductions are given by the District’s Board of Trustees and the Superintendent, and the Principal presents the graduating class,” Karlton wrote. “Clearly the school is the sponsor and bears the responsibility for the graduation ceremony. There can be no doubt the event is the District’s.

“Graduation is a forum to celebrate the class of 1999 in all its diversity,” Karlton continued. “Limiting plaintiff’s speech to secular subject matter is reasonably related to that legitimate pedagogical concern. Furthermore, given the proclivity of religious speech in a state-sponsored event to create political controversy, defendants are permitted under Hazelwood to forbid plaintiff’s proposed address.”

The Rutherford Institute further argued that forcing Jason to remove any sectarian references from his address amounted to a constitutional violation of his free exercise of religion rights. Not so, Karlton said.

Citing Justice David Souter’s concurring opinion in Lee, Karlton said “religious students cannot complain that omitting prayers from their graduation ceremony would, in any realistic sense, burden their spiritual callings.”

“Simply put, the Free Exercise Clause does not require defendants to afford plaintiff a podium so that he can testify to his faith in God before a captive audience,” Karlton wrote. “Denying plaintiff the right to promote his religious beliefs before the graduating class of 1999, their friends and families will not burden plaintiff’s right to freely exercise his religion.”

Karlton’s ruling comes amid heightened attention by politicians to religion in the public schools.

After the high school shooting in Colorado, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to a expansive juvenile-offenders act that said organized prayer and religious ceremonies on public school grounds did not offend the First Amendment and the U.S. House last week added an amendment to its juvenile protection bill that declared public school officials can post copies of the Ten Commandments on school grounds without constitutional concerns.

In late may, Nick Becker protested organized prayer at his Maryland high school’s graduation ceremonies. The senior walked out of the ceremony after a majority of the audience recited the Lord’s prayer. School officials then barred Becker from re-entering the premises to obtain his degree.