Memorial service at school OK with right approach

Sunday, June 1, 1997

If a student or school official dies, is it constitutional to have a memorial service in the public school?
Mike Burdick, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Yes, if the memorial service is not a religious ceremony. If the service is religious in nature, then the public school may not sponsor it.

Since most people want and expect a memorial service to include religious expression, it is best for community members to organize and sponsor the event. A privately sponsored memorial can be as religious as the organizers wish it to be. It can even be at the school after-hours, if school facilities are regularly made available for other community events.

This approach is also effective in addressing conflicts over the inclusion of religious faith during the time of high-school graduation. A privately sponsored, voluntarily attended baccalaureate service held after school hours would be a far better approach than a fight over a 60-second prayer at graduation. The school may announce the event and even allow it to be on campus if other community groups are given similar privileges.

Sometimes sudden tragedy strikes a school community. In a moment of crisis, school officials may feel the need to act quickly to help comfort the students in their grief. A schoolwide moment of silence might be one way to respond immediately. School counselors might also encourage students to consult with their own clergy members, who have been alerted to the situation by school officials so that they can be available to students in their homes and places of worship.

Some students may respond to news of the death of a classmate or teacher by wanting to pray — either alone or with other students. They have that right. Under the First Amendment, students are free to pray alone or in groups as long as they don't disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

What about the role of teachers? Last month, a teacher in New York told me that one of her students came to her just after hearing of the death of a close friend. The student asked the teacher to pray with him. Although the teacher knew that school officials must be neutral concerning religion in the school setting, she also knew that she had to respond to a hurting heart. The teacher simply bowed her head and closed her eyes while the student prayed. Under the circumstances, I think she did the right thing.

When it comes to a memorial service, however, the school should turn the planning over to the community.