Graduation prayer a tricky issue, but consider this approach

Sunday, May 25, 2003

“Never say die.” That’s the motto for both sides in the perennial fight over prayer at public-school graduation ceremonies.

The conflict reached a new height of absurdity last week when students in Le Mars, Iowa, filed a lawsuit because the district superintendent wouldn’t let them have a “moment of silence” at graduation. (Apparently, the principal mentioned the p-word after students voted for the silence, striking fear into the hearts of district officials. The school district has since relented and agreed to allow the moment of silence.)

Le Mars isn’t alone. Districts around the nation are struggling with controversies over prayer — even silent prayer — at graduation ceremonies.

Beleaguered school officials had hoped to get beyond this fight in 1992. That’s when the Supreme Court declared school-sponsored prayers at graduation unconstitutional (in Lee v. Weisman, thus ending the widespread practice of inviting local clergy to offer prayers).

But as the lawsuit in Iowa suggests, the battle is far from over. Over the past decade, graduation-prayer proponents have merely shifted the debate from adults to students, arguing that student-initiated, student-led prayers aren’t “state-sponsored” — but a matter of free speech and free exercise of religion.

Not to be outflanked, the other side counters that graduation remains a school-sponsored event — and student speakers selected to offer prayers still send a message of school endorsement to a captive audience. This position was bolstered by Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the 2000 Supreme Court decision striking down student-led prayers over the public-address system at high school football games.

Caught in the crossfire, what’s the poor principal supposed to do?

Though it obviously still triggers a fight in places like Le Mars, the “moment of silence” solution is probably the best way to find common ground. As long as the moment of silence isn’t used to encourage prayer over any other quiet, contemplative activity, most legal experts agree that it’s fully legal under current law.

Starting with a moment of silence solemnizes the occasion — and gives everyone an opportunity to pray, meditate or reflect according to the dictates of individual conscience.

But for those who want more than silence is there any (legal) way for a student speaker to give a prayer at graduation? According to new guidelines issued in February by the U.S. Department of Education, the answer is yes — but only under very specific conditions.

The DOE guidelines begin the answer to this question by clearly stating that school officials “may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation or select speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech such as prayer.”

Then things get a bit more complicated. According to the guidelines, if a student speaker is selected on the basis of “genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria,” and if the student retains “primary control” over the content of the speech, then the speaker is free to include religious or anti-religious expression. (The DOE points out that a school may make a “disclaimer” to make clear that the speech is the speaker’s and not the school’s.)

Taking this approach means creating what might be called a free-speech forum at graduation, during which time students are free to express themselves religiously or otherwise. This takes school officials out of the picture – no editing or reviewing the speech for religious or anti-religious content.

This can be a risky business for a least two reasons.

First, such a forum would have to be open to all kinds of speech, including speech critical of religion or the school. Though the school would not be required to allow speech that was profane, sexually explicit, defamatory or disruptive, the speech could include political or religious views offensive to many.

And second, not everyone agrees with the DOE on what is and isn’t permitted under current law. A case decided by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Florida, Georgia and Alabama) appears to support the DOE advice. But some legal experts argue that the law remains murky in much of the nation — and the Supreme Court has not decided this issue.

Is there a better approach? Yes. The best place for prayers and sermons during the graduation weekend is at a privately sponsored, voluntarily attended baccalaureate service held after school hours, perhaps at a local place of worship.

In this setting, students and their families are free to pray as much as they wish – and in any way they choose. The school could announce the baccalaureate and even allow it to be held on campus if other community groups are given similar privileges.

Moving prayers to baccalaureates won’t satisfy the diehards on this issue, but it’s a good way to allow for authentic religious practice at graduation time without violating anyone’s freedom of conscience.

Never say die? Never say never.

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