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COURT DECISIONS ON PRAYERS DURING GRADUATION CEREMONIES AT U.S. PUBLIC SCHOOLS

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Some older court rulings:

Essentially all prayers led by a public school official or a clergyperson from the community appear to be unconstitutional. Court rulings on the constitutionality of student-initiated, student-led prayers are contradictory: 

bullet1992: USA: Supreme Court ruling: In the case of Lee v. Weisman [U.S., 112 S. Ct. 2649 (1992)], the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employees of a public school district may not induce, endorse, assist, nor promote prayer at their graduation ceremonies. This would forbid prayers presented by a school principal, a teacher, or a clergyperson from the community. Judge Anthony Kennedy prepared the majority opinion. He wrote that the "Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation."

The school principal in this case had decided to include an invocation and benediction during the ceremony. He chose a clergyperson from the community to give these prayers and provided him with a copy of a National Council of Christians and Jew's publication "Guidelines for Civic Occasions." It contains suggestions for the delivery of non-sectarian prayers.

The court did not rule on two questions:
bulletWhether student-initiated and student-led prayer is constitutional. As of 2002-JAN, the Supreme Court still has yet to rule on this specific matter. Lower courts have issued conflicting rulings. 
bulletWhether this ruling was for public schools only, or would also govern graduation prayers at colleges and universities.
bullet1992: Student led graduation prayers OK: The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a graduation prayer in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi would be constitutional if:
bulletThe prayer was approved by most of the graduating class.
bulletThe prayer was given by a student.
bulletThe prayer must be "nonsectarian." It is not clear what the court meant by this word. Strictly speaking, this could mean that a prayer could not mention God, because followers of some religions do not recognize a personal God: Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism are two examples.
bulletThe prayer must be "non-proselytizing." Again, it is not clear what is meant by this term.
bullet1995: Student led graduation prayers not OK: The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that essentially negated the 1992 ruling by the 5th circuit court.

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Recent actions by schools and audiences:

bullet1994-NOV-22: California: School board allows student-initiated prayer: The Ventura, CA, unified school district issued a policy stating that it would "...neither endorse prayers at graduation ceremonies, nor condemn such prayers when they are made in accordance with law." Clergy and other non-students would not be allowed to give a prayer. However, students on their own initiative would be allowed to give a non-sectarian and non-proselytizing prayer if that is their wish. A disclaimer would have to be printed in the program stating: "In accordance with Board policy 5127.1, the district disclaims that any prayer offered at a graduation ceremony reflects any official opinion or attitude of the district or its Board. Any such prayer is a personal statement of the individual giving the prayer." 3
bullet1997-JUN: Pennsylvania: Christians object to prayer ban: Two parents of students graduating in Rocky Grove, PA, organized a meeting at a local church to object to the school districts' ban on organized prayer. Brooke Wentworth, an Atheist, had told the school board that prayers at graduation would violate her constitutional rights. One purpose of the meeting was to organize a prayer service to be held right before the graduation ceremony. Others came to organize a legal challenge to the American Civil Liberties Union who had threatened to sue the board if it allowed prayers. One parent said: "If we sit down and squelch this, we are no better than the oppressed Jews when Hitler took over. We are asking them to come and hide away their belief in Christ." Two other parents said that Brooke Wentworth was doing "Satan’s work." One said: "This country was founded on Jesus Christ and Wentworth is being led by the devil." Another said: "This is nothing but the devil working against Christ. I am a red-blooded American. The Constitution gives me the right to pray anywhere and I shall do it." 4
bullet1998-MAY-5: Montana: School board bans prayer: Melissa Vandehey petitioned the school board in Stevensvile, MT to allow prayers at her graduation ceremony. A poll of fellow students found that 70% either favored or would tolerate prayer. She said that "The proposed prayer will include a thank you to the Lord for the friends we have made, the memories we shared, and the time we have been together. Also, it will contain a blessing for the future plans of each member of the class." In a 3 - 3 vote, the board retained the existing ban.
bullet1999-APR-19: Florida: State passes prayer bill: House Bill 1773 was passed by the Florida House Judiciary Committee. If made into law, it will allow school districts to impose a "brief opening or closing message, or both" at all noncompulsory activities. This would presumably include school assemblies, football games, graduation ceremonies and similar events. The content of the message was not specified. The original bill was amended to allow "inspirational messages" including "a prayer or invocation," if a majority of students present requested it. Carole shields, president of People for the American Way commented: "There is nothing neutral about this bill. Students of minority faiths should not, and under our Constitution cannot, be forced to choose between missing a school activity or being held captive to the denominational prayers of a majority. This is an offensive and disturbing attack on the First Amendment." 1  
bullet1999-MAY-18: Florida: School board appeals court ban: A panel of three judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th circuit had previously voted 2 to 1 to ban student-led prayers at high school graduation ceremonies. The case was Emily Adler, et. al. vs. the Duval County School Board, et al., vs. Susan Boles, et. al. The Duval County School Board in Jacksonville, FL, had set up a system in which students would decide whether there would be a graduation message or not. Students would also decide who would speak. The speakers themselves would have complete autonomy over the content of their speeches. The school board voted to appeal the decision to the full court. See below.
bullet1999-MAY-19: Idaho: Court lets prayer policy stand: The Madison School District in Idaho had a policy covering graduation ceremonies: "The school administration may invite graduating students to participate in high school graduation exercises according to academic class standing... Students selected to participate may choose to deliver an address, poem, reading, song, musical presentation, prayer or any other pronouncement of their choosing." The family of a graduating student protested. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the policy was constitutional. The entire court then heard the case. They decided that the family had no standing to sue, since they could not identify any tax money that was being used to implement the policy. Besides, the case was moot because the student had already graduated.
bullet1999-JUN-7: Maryland: Audience forces prayer: Nick Becker, a student at Northern High School in Calvert County, objected to a prayer during the graduation ceremony. After accepting the advice of the American Civil Liberties Union, the school decided to substitute a moment of silence. A man in the audience, a Southern Baptist pastor Douglas Myers, interrupted the moment of silence, and started to recite the Lord's Prayer loudly. Others in the audience joined him. County Commissioner President Linda Kelley, an attendee, joined in the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. At a later interview, she rejected the authority of the courts, saying: "This is a churchgoing community, and no one in Annapolis or Washington, D.C., is going to tell us when and where we can pray." 5
bullet2000-MAR-16: Florida: Court overturns its own decision: The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th circuit reversed an earlier decision made by a panel of three of its own judges. It decided that the Duval County School Board in Jacksonville, FL had organized the graduation ceremony as a "public forum." Thus any prayer would be constitutional; it would be considered a private, not a state, action. Executive Director Phil Baum of the American Jewish Congress stated: "We are disappointed that the full panel has declared that a majority could impose their will on a minority and compel others to listen to prayers that are offensive to some. We believe that the decision was a mistake and that it should be overturned by the United States Supreme Court." 6
bullet2001-MAR-4: California: Graduation address about Jesus: A California high school valedictorian was barred by his public school from delivering a graduation speech in which he was going to ask the audience to "accept God's love" and live by "Jesus' example." He appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, who refused to consider it. They gave no reason for their rejection. This leaves the lower court ruling intact -- that such speech violates the separation of church and state. 2
bullet2002-DEC-10: Florida: U.S. Supreme Court declined to review case: This action lets stand the U.S. Court of Appeals decision which found school prayer at graduation ceremonies to be legal. Public Citizen submitted a friend of the court brief which said: "The clear purpose of the challenged policy is to preserve a tradition of prayer at graduation." Lawyers for the school board said that the policy: "neither establishes nor prohibits religious speech. It merely permits graduating senior classes to decide whether or not to include an unrestricted message as part of their ceremonies." The court ordered the appeals court to review their decision. The case is: Adler v. Duval County School Board, 01-287. 7
bullet2003-FEB-19: California: Federal appeals court edits graduation speech: Nicholas Lassonde, was a co-salutatorian for the 1999 graduating class of Amador Valley High School in the San Francisco Bay area, He wanted to include a long Bible passage in his speech, along with a description of eternal life through Jesus as "the gift of God." Referring to his conservative religious belief that the vast majority of humans spend eternity being tortured in Hell, he had planned to ask the audience: "Have you accepted the gift, or will you pay the ultimate price?" School principal Bill Coupe had instructed him to remove sections of his speech which he considered to be religious proselytizing. The Pleasanton Unified School District and the principal had decided that this text would have placed the district in possible violation of both the Federal and California constitutions. However, the principal allowed some religious references to be included. Lassonde mentioned that his grandfather had recently died had gone "home to be with the Lord." He ended his speech with the words, "God bless and good luck." He delivered the censored speech, mentioned to his audience that portions had been taken out, and said that he would hand out copies of the original complete text afterwards. Lassonde sued, claiming that his freedom of speech rights had been violated. He lost, and unsuccessfully appealed the case to a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling said, in part: "Regardless of any offered disclaimer, a reasonable dissenter still could feel that there is no choice but to participate in the proselytizing in order to attend a high school graduation. Although a disclaimer arguably distances school officials from 'sponsoring' the speech, it does not change the fact that proselytizing amounts to a religious practice that the school district may not coerce other students to participate in, even while looking the other way...Plaintiff, who is a devout Christian, drafted a speech that quoted extensively from the Bible. In his declaration, Plaintiff explained that he intended for the speech to 'express his desire for fellow graduates to develop a personal relationship with God through faith in Christ in order to better their lives.' " 8
bullet2006-MAY-19: Kentucky: Graduation ceremony prayer blocked: Judge Joseph H. McKinley of the U.S. District Court in Bowling Green issued a temporary restraining order that blocked the inclusion of a Christian prayer as part of the graduation ceremonies at Russell County High School later that day. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed the suit on behalf of an unidentified student. ACLU lawyer Lili Lutgens said of the student: "He did not feel that he should have to sit through government-sponsored prayer just to receive his diploma." Graduation ceremonies in previous years involved "sectarian Christian invocations and benedictions given by students," that referred to "God" and "Jesus." The student had previously asked the principal and other school district officials to cancel the prayer, but his request was reportedly denied. 9 Senior students elected Megan Chapman to give a "message" at the graduation. She was involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In her talk, she mentioned that God had guided her since childhood. She urged her classmates to trust in God in their future lives. She was repeatedly interrupted by applause. Since this was a message of her own creation, it would presumably be protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The complaining student has been identified only as John Doe because he fears retaliation, presumably from Christian students, if his identity becomes known. At the evening graduation ceremony, about 200 seniors stood during the principal's opening remarks and recited the Lord's Prayer. This triggered a standing ovation from the standing-room only crowd in the school gymnasium. Megan Chapman plans to appeal the injunction with the help of the Fundamentalist Christian legal group, Liberty Counsel so that future graduation ceremonies can include Christian prayers.
Lili Lutgens said: "This case is not about whether people can pray. It's about families and individuals deciding for themselves whether, when and how to pray. Our founders intended that these sorts of religious decisions be made by individuals and families, not government." 10

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Related essays on this web site:

bulletWhat the Bible says about public prayer
bulletSeparation of church and state issues

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References:

  1. Press release, "Pitting faith against faith: Florida bill would sow division in public schools," People for the American Way, 1999-APR-9
  2. Anne Gearan, "Court to decide same-site case," Associated Press, 2001-MAR-5.
  3. "Graduation ceremony prayer," Ventura Unified School District, at: http://www.vtusd.k12.ca.us/policy/id712.htm 
  4. "PA graduation prayer controversy continues," American Civil Liberties Union, at: http://www.aclu.org/news/w060397c.html 
  5. "Graduation ceremony crowd rejects prayer ban," Evangelical Press News Service," at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/news3141.htm 
  6. "AJCongress says federal appeals court should not have overturned ruling that Florida graduation ceremonies imposed prayers on religious minorities." American Jewish Congress, at: http://www.ajcongress.org/pages/RELS2000/
  7. "Supreme Court will not reconsider prayer at graduation case," Fox News, 2001-DEC-10, at: http://www.foxnews.com/story
  8. "Court says no religion in grad speech," UPI, 2003-FEB-19, at: http://www.upi.com/view.cfm?
  9. "Judge blocks prayer at graduation ceremony," Associated Press, 2006-MAY-19, at: http://www.whas11.com/
  10. Peter Smith, "Graduates stage protest prayer. Judge had ruled against Russell plan," Courier-Journal, 2006-MAY-20. Louisville, KY, at: http://www.courier-journal.com/

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Copyright © 2001 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-MAR-6
Latest update: 2006-MAY-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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