• Key point. Student-initiated and led prayers at public high school graduation ceremonies may violate the first amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause, even if the senior class votes in favor of a prayer and a notice is placed in graduation programs informing attendees that the prayer is not endorsed by the school.
A federal appeals court ruled that a graduating senior could not recite a prayer at a public high school graduation ceremony, even though the senior class voted to include the prayer. A public high school adopted a policy allowing the senior class to conduct a poll of the graduating class to determine whether it wanted "a prayer, a moment of silence, or nothing at all" to be included in the graduation ceremony. The senior class elected to include a prayer, and a graduating senior was selected to give the prayer. School policy mandated that a disclaimer be printed in the official graduation program explaining that the prayer did not reflect the views of the school. A few weeks before the graduation ceremony, a student asked school officials for permission to have a representative of the ACLU address "safe sex" and condom distribution at the ceremony. When this request was denied, the student and ACLU sued the school arguing that the proposed student-led prayer violated the first amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause. A federal district court ruled that the prayer would violate the first amendment, and the school appealed. A federal appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling. The court based its decision on a 1992 Supreme Court ruling holding that a prayer offered by a minister at a public high school graduation ceremony was unconstitutional. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992). In the Lee case the Supreme Court stressed the following two factors: (1) state officials directed the performance of a formal religious exercise at a public high school graduation, and (2) students who objected to the prayer had no real choice but to attend, since they could not be expected to miss their own graduation ceremony. The appeals court concluded that both factors were present in this case as well. First, the school exercised a "high degree of control" over the contents of the graduation ceremony, despite the fact that the senior class was allowed the option of including prayer: "Delegation of one aspect of the ceremony to a plurality of students does not constitute the absence of school officials' control over the graduation. Students decided the question of prayer at graduation only because school officials agreed to let them decide that one question." Second, the court concluded that students' participation in the prayer was "coerced," since they had no real alternative but to be present for the prayer. The court quoted with approval from the Lee case: