Prayer issue mars graduations

Sunday, June 13, 1999

Prayer at a high school graduation sparked not one, but two protests in Calvert County, Md., last month.

The first protest erupted when the student delivering the invocation called for a silent “time for reflection.” Someone in the audience started praying the Lord's Prayer out loud — and thousands of others joined in.

That act of civil disobedience by the majority triggered a second protest by a member of the minority. Graduating senior Nick Becker — who opposes vocal prayer at school events — walked out. When Becker tried to re-enter to receive his diploma, the police barred the way (ostensibly because of a school policy prohibiting students from returning to an assembly once they have left).

Calvert County is just one of many communities divided over prayer during this graduation season. What, if anything, can be done to find common ground?

A good first step would be if those who support and those who oppose graduation prayer would try to understand the depth of emotion this issue evokes in their adversaries.

Many conservative Christians are outraged that they can't publicly acknowledge God on such an important occasion. People on the other side are equally outraged that the majority wants to use a public-school event to impose religious practice on everybody.

Getting beyond this polarized debate is especially difficult when the First Amendment ground rules are unclear. Court rulings on graduation prayer are all over the legal map.

For instance, a 1992 decision by the Supreme Court lets us know that school officials may not offer prayers or invite local clergy to do so. But is student-initiated and student-led prayer permissible? The lower courts are divided on this question, and the Supreme Court hasn't ruled directly on the matter.

One U.S. Court of Appeals — in the 5th Circuit, covering Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi — ruled in 1992 that a student could give a prayer at graduation under certain conditions: the class as a whole must vote to have the prayer, it must be given by a student, and it must be “nonsectarian” and “non-proselytizing” (whatever those terms mean).

But in 1995 the federal appeals court in the 3rd Circuit struck down school policies that allow prayer under these same conditions. Small wonder, then, that school boards and administrators are confused about what the First Amendment does and doesn't allow.

Even a number of graduation-prayer advocates view the 5th Circuit decision as a hollow victory. What's the point of allowing a prayer if it can't be a real prayer? Just last month, conservative Christians sued a Texas school district because it advised a student that her prayer wasn't sufficiently “non-sectarian.” (She wanted to pray “in Jesus' name.”)

Court decisions aren't the best solution. The most prayer advocates are going to get through the courts is a “to whom it may concern” prayer. Or perhaps the courts will allow a “First Amendment” moment during which a student may say anything he or she wants — including a prayer. But these approaches are unsatisfactory all around, and they don't address the underlying division and anger in the community.

My best advice is for parents, teachers, administrators, religious leaders and other stakeholders to come together and start really listening to one another. It's harder to demonize someone you know and understand.

If members of a school district build mutual trust and respect, then the solution that results from their discussions might work without provoking protests and anger. A moment of silence at the graduation, for example, is a good idea. It gives everyone an opportunity to pray — or not to pray — according to the dictates of each conscience. But that approach must first be discussed and agreed to by people representing various community perspectives.

What about public acknowledgement of God during the time of graduation? The best way for that to happen is at a baccalaureate service for those who wish to attend. As long as it is sponsored by community groups &3151; and not by the school — the baccalaureate can include real prayers and sermons. It can even be held at the school if community groups are allowed to use school facilities after hours.

It strikes me that authentic prayer at a baccalaureate service does more to acknowledge God than watered-down, edited prayers at a graduation ceremony.

Whatever the solution, surely we can improve on what happened in Calvert County. After all, one of the first things the Calvert family did after founding Maryland more than 350 years ago was to pass the Toleration Act of 1649. Perhaps we need a Toleration Act of 1999.