Court Rulings on the Constitutionality of Including Invocations at Public High School Graduation Ceremonies

Two courts have ruled on the constitutionality of including invocations at public high school graduation

Two courts have ruled on the constitutionality of including invocations at public high school graduation ceremonies, with mixed results.

A California appeals court ruled that the inclusion of a religious invocation in a public high school graduation ceremony violated state and federal constitutional provisions prohibiting the establishment of religion. In reaching its conclusion, the court applied the three-part test often employed by the United States Supreme Court in deciding whether a challenged governmental action violates the first amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause: (1) the governmental action must have a secular purpose; (2) it must not have a primary effect that advances or inhibits religion; and (3) it must not create an excessive entanglement between church and state.

The inclusion of invocations at public high school graduation ceremonies violated all three of these tests, concluded the court. The court also observed that "the citizens of this country, and perhaps of this state in particular, are a people of highly diverse cultural, ethical and religious backgrounds," and that "any religious invocation … therefore almost certainly will not comport with the beliefs of a number of those persons present, and may in fact be offensive to some." Freedom to believe and to worship, concluded the court, "includes the freedom not to engage in the religious practices of the majority." Bennett v. Livermore Unified School District, 238 Cal. Rptr. 819 (1987).

A federal appeals court also struck down the inclusion of invocations and benedictions at public high school graduation ceremonies. However, the court acknowledged that invocations and benedictions would be constitutionally permissible if they were similar to the "civil invocations or benedictions used in public legislative and judicial sessions." Permissible invocations, noted the court, would be nonsectarian, nonproselytizing, and solemnizing.

The invocations and benedictions that the court invalidated employed the language of Christian theology and prayer, often invoking the name of Jesus Christ as the Savior. Such language "symbolically placed the government's seal of approval on one religious view—the Christian view," and was therefore impermissible. Stein v. Plainwell Community Schools, 822 F.2d 1406 (6th Cir. 1987).

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