Supreme Court turns away professor’s challenge of school prayer

Monday, March 23, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) — A professor who challenged Tennessee State University’s use of prayers or moments of silence at graduation ceremonies lost a Supreme Court appeal today.

The court, without comment, turned away the professor’s argument that the prayers and moments of silence amount to an unlawful government establishment of religion and violate his right to practice his Hindu religion.

In 1992, the high court barred clergy-led prayers at public elementary and secondary school graduations, saying the Constitution’s First Amendment “forbids the state to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation.”

But federal appeals courts have split over whether such graduation prayers are lawful in public schools if led by students.

Dilip K. Chaudhuri, a mechanical engineering professor at Tennessee State in Nashville, sued university officials in 1991 over the school’s practice of having nonsectarian prayers offered at graduations and other events.

Chaudhuri sought monetary damages and an order barring such prayers at future events. He said his performance evaluations were based partly on university service, including participation in such events.

Starting with the May 1993 graduation, university officials decided to call for a moment of silence instead of a prayer.

When the speaker asked the audience to rise and remain silent, some members recited the Lord’s Prayer aloud. A similar incident occurred at the summer graduation that August.

A federal judge ruled against Chaudhuri, and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.

The appeals court rejected Chaudhuri’s argument that the moments of silence were intended to encourage prayer. The nonsectarian prayers appeared intended to “solemnize the events” and not to indoctrinate the audience, the appeals court said.

It said the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision “attached particular importance to the youth of the audience,” adding that a university professor would be less susceptible to religious indoctrination.

In the appeal acted on today, Chaudhuri’s lawyer said there was an “element of coercion” because he was expected, if not required, to attend university events.

The case is Chaudhuri v. Tennessee, 97-1352.