Rulings on prayers at graduation conflict

Sunday, April 20, 1997

The graduating class of our high school has voted unanimously
to have a prayer at graduation, but the school has said that is
not permissible because the ceremony is mandatory and therefore
the audience is “captive.” Why is a prayer not permissible
if it is student-initiated and the vote was unanimously in favor?

Jim Schuster, Pilot Grove, Mo.

Unfortunately, there is no clear legal answer to your question
because the lower courts are divided about the constitutionality
of student-initiated, student-led prayers at graduation exercises.
Until the Supreme Court resolves the matter, school districts
in many parts of the country will remain confused about what they
should do concerning student prayers at graduation.

A 1992 Supreme Court decision does make it clear that public
school officials may not sponsor or organize prayer at graduation.
Subsequent cases have focused on whether students may organize
and lead the prayer. The results of these cases have sent schools
a mixed message.

In a 1992 opinion, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that
graduation prayer is constitutional if students vote to have a
prayer and the prayer is student-led, nonsectarian and non-proselytizing.
The Supreme Court declined to review this decision. But in 1996,
the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals issued a different ruling, saying
that student-initiated and student-led prayer at graduation is
unconstitutional because the ceremony remains a school-sponsored
event under the control of school officials.

If you live in a state covered by either of these circuits, then
you have a clear ruling to follow. The 5th circuit includes Texas,
Mississippi and Louisiana. The 3rd covers New Jersey, Delaware
and Pennsylvania.

States and school districts outside these circuits must choose
between the two lines of reasoning in the debate. Are student
prayers at graduation protected free speech, as the American Center
for Law and Justice argues? Or do student prayers at graduation
violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment because
graduation is a school-sponsored event, as the American Civil
Liberties Union contends?

Some state legislatures — including Tennessee's — have passed laws
encouraging schools to pattern their graduation exercises according
to the 5th Circuit's decision. Other places, such as your school
district in Pilot Grove, have decided to prohibit student-initiated
prayer at school-sponsored events. Parents and students interested
in the legality of graduation prayer should seek legal advice
concerning which rules apply in their state.

Does this debate have any common-ground solutions? In some districts,
both sides have agreed that a moment of silence may open the ceremony
and solemnize the occasion. Other schools create a “free-speech
forum” at school-sponsored events, allowing students to freely
express themselves-in religious terms or otherwise-for a certain
period of time. Such forums, however, must be open to all kinds
of speech, including speech critical of religion or the school.

Whatever happens during the graduation exercise itself, all sides
can agree that a privately sponsored, voluntarily attended baccalaureate
service is a constitutional and appropriate way for parents and
students to acknowledge their religious faith during the time
of commencement. The value of a baccalaureate service is that
it gives students and parents an opportunity to express their
religious faith in any way they chose. For most religious people,
this is far more authentic and meaningful than a short, “nonsectarian,
non-proselytizing” prayer (whatever that is). The privately
sponsored baccalaureate can be announced at the school and even
held on campus after hours if other community events are given
similar privileges.

The current debate about graduation prayer should not obscure
the many areas of agreement about the religious-liberty rights
of public school students. A broad range of religious and educational
groups, from right to left, now agree to the guidelines issued
by the U.S. Department of Education outlining the many rights
that students and parents have in public schools and the appropriate
role of religion in the curriculum. For a free copy of these guidelines,
write to the First Amendment Center at the address given below.