Nonsectarian Invocations Allowed at Public Schools

Such prayers must meet certain requirements.

Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, 977 F.2d 963 (5th Cir. 1992)

Key point: Not all prayers offered at public high school graduation ceremonies necessarily violate the first amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause.

A federal appeals court ruled that allowing public high school seniors to choose student volunteers to deliver nonsectarian, nonproselytizing invocations at their graduation ceremonies does not violate the first amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause.

A public school district in Texas adopted the following resolution: "The use of an invocation and/or benediction at high school graduation exercises shall rest within the discretion of the graduating senior class, with the advice and counsel of the senior class principal; the invocation and benediction, if used, shall be given by a student volunteer; and consistent with the principle of equal liberty of conscience, the invocation and benediction shall be nonsectarian and nonproselytizing in nature." Pursuant to this resolution, prayers were offered by graduating seniors at public high school graduation ceremonies within the district.

A lawsuit was filed challenging the constitutionality of this practice, and a trial court ruled that the practice did not violate the first amendment. A federal appeals court agreed, concluding that the Supreme Court's recent school prayer decision (Lee v. Weisman) did not change the result. In the Lee case, the Supreme Court ruled that a public high school principal violated the first amendment by inviting a local clergyman to deliver a nonsectarian, nonproselytizing invocation at a graduation ceremony. The Court reasoned that the principal's actions represented governmental coercion to participate in religious activities.

The appeals court acknowledged that it was bound by the Supreme Court's decision in Lee, but concluded that the Lee case did not require that the school district resolution at issue in this case be invalidated. The court noted many critical differences in this case that distinguished it from Lee. First, the graduating seniors themselves decided whether or not they wanted an invocation during their graduation ceremony. In Lee, a high school principal made this decision. Second, the invocation (if desired by the graduating seniors) was offered by a student. In Lee, the invocation was offered by a member of the clergy. Third, the student selected to offer the invocation was free to compose it without any participation by the school (other than the requirement that it be nonsectarian and nonproselytizing). There was no requirement that the invocation mention God or contain any other religious references. In Lee, there was some school involvement in the composition of the prayers, and it was understood that the prayers would be "religious". Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there was little if any of the "psychological pressure" upon students to participate in the invocation than there was in Lee.

The court observed: "We think that the graduation prayers permitted by the resolution place less psychological pressure on students than the prayers at issue in Lee because all students, after having participated in the decision of whether prayers will be given, are aware that any prayers represent the will of their peers, who are less able to coerce participation than an authority figure from the state or clergy."

The court concluded its decision with these words: "This case requires us to consider why so many people attach importance to graduation ceremonies. If they only seek achievement, diplomas suffice. If they only seek God's recognition, a privately-sponsored baccalaureate will do. But to experience the community's recognition of student achievement, they must attend the public ceremony that other interested community members also hold so dear. By attending graduation to experience and participate in the community's display of support for the graduates, people should not be surprised to find the event affected by community standards. The Constitution requires nothing different."

See also Clergy—removal, Lewis v. Seventh Day Adventists Lake Region Conference, 978 F.2d 940 (6th Cir. 1992).

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