Can a student pray at graduation exercises or at other school-sponsored events?

This is one of the most confusing and controversial areas of the current school-prayer debate. While the courts have not clarified all of the issues, some are clearer than others.

For instance, inviting outside adults to lead prayers at graduation ceremonies is clearly unconstitutional. The Supreme Court resolved this issue in the 1992 case Lee v. Weisman, which began when prayers were delivered by clergy at a middle school’s commencement exercises in Providence, Rhode Island. The school designed the program, provided for the invocation, selected the clergy, and even supplied guidelines for the prayer.

Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the practice violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” The majority based its decision on the fact that (1) it is not the business of schools to sponsor or organize religious activities, and (2) students who might have objected to the prayer were subtly coerced to participate. This psychological coercion was not resolved by the fact that attendance at the graduation was “voluntary.” In the Court’s view, few students would want to miss the culminating event of their academic career.

A murkier issue is student-initiated, student-led prayer at school-sponsored events. On one side of the debate are those who believe that student religious speech at graduation ceremonies or other school-sponsored events violates the establishment clause. They are bolstered by the 2000 Supreme Court case Santa Fe v. Doe, which involved the traditional practice of student-led prayers over the public-address system before high school football games.

According to the district, students would vote each year on whether they would have prayers at home football games. If they decided to do so, they would then select a student to deliver the prayers. To ensure fairness, the school district said it required these prayers to be “non-sectarian [and] non-proselytizing.”

A 6-to-3 majority of the Supreme Court still found the Santa Fe policy to be unconstitutional. The majority opinion first pointed out that constitutional rights are not subject to a vote. To the contrary, the judges said the purpose of the Bill of Rights was to place some rights beyond the reach of political majorities. Thus, the Constitution protects a person’s right to freedom of speech, press, or religion even if no one else agrees with the ideas a person professes.

In addition, the Court found that having a student, as opposed to an adult, lead the prayer did not solve the constitutional dilemma. A football game is still a school-sponsored event, they held, and the school was still coercing the students, however subtly, to participate in a religious exercise.

Finally, the Court ruled that the requirement that the prayer be “non-sectarian” and “non-proselytizing” not only failed to solve the problems addressed in Lee v. Weisman, it may have aggravated them. In other words, while some might like the idea of an inclusive, nonsectarian “civil” religion, others might not. To some people, the idea of nonsectarian prayer is offensive, as though a prayer were being addressed “to whom it may concern.” Moreover, the Supreme Court made clear in Lee v. Weisman that even nondenominational prayers or generic religiosity may not be established by the government at graduation exercises.

Another thorny part of this issue is determining whether a particular prayer tends to proselytize. Such determinations entangle school officials in religious matters in unconstitutional ways. In fact, one Texas school district was sued for discriminating against those who wished to offer more-sectarian prayers at graduation exercises.

On the other side of this debate are those who contend that not allowing students to express themselves religiously at school events violates the students’ free exercise of religion and free speech.

Case law indicates, however, that this may be true only in instances involving strictly student speech, and not when a student is conveying a message controlled or endorsed by the school. As the 11th Circuit case of Adler v. Duval County (2001) suggests, it would seem possible for a school to provide a forum for student speech within a graduation ceremony when prayer or religious speech might occur.

For example, a school might allow the valedictorian or class president an opportunity to speak during the ceremony. If such a student chose to express a religious viewpoint, it seems unlikely it would be found unconstitutional unless the school had suggested or otherwise encouraged the religious speech. (See Doe v. Madison School Dist., 9th Cir. 1998.) In effect, this means that in order to distance itself from the student’s remarks, the school must create a limited open forum for student speech in the graduation program.

Again, there is a risk for school officials in this approach. By creating a limited open forum for student speech, the school may have to accept almost anything the student wishes to say. Although the school would not be required to allow speech that was profane, sexually explicit, defamatory, or disruptive, the speech could include political or religious views offensive to many, as well as speech critical of school officials.

If school officials feel a solemnizing event needs to occur at a graduation exercise, a neutral moment of silence might be the best option. This way, everyone could pray, meditate, or silently reflect on the previous year’s efforts in her own way.

Category: Freedom of Religion

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