Public Prayers at High School Graduations

Prayers may violate the First Amendment.

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01

Freedom of Religion

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:

What to most believers may seem nothing more than a reasonable request that the nonbeliever respect their religious practices, in a school context may appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the state to enforce a religious orthodoxy …. The undeniable fact is that the school district’s supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places public pressure, as well as peer pressure on attending students to stand as a group or, at least, maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction. This pressure, though subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion …. For the dissenter of high school age, who has a reasonable perception that she is being forced by the state to pray in a manner her conscience will not allow, the injury is … real.

The court concluded: “References to, and images of, religion are to be found throughout this society. Yet, the prevalence of religious beliefs and imagery cannot erode the state’s obligation to protect the entire spectrum of religious preferences from the most pious worshipper to the most committed atheist. Those preferences are the business of the individual, not the state nor the public schools it maintains. The first amendment does not allow the state to erect a policy that only respects religious views that are popular because the largest majority cannot be licensed to impose its religious preferences upon the smallest minority.”

Four judges dissented from the court’s opinion, noting that another federal appeals court had ruled that student-led and initiated prayers at public high school graduation ceremonies do not violate the nonestablishment of religion clause.

Application. The legal validity of prayers at public high school graduation ceremonies remains unresolved. The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that local clergy cannot offer prayers at such events. The court in this case extended this ruling to student-initiated and led prayers. However, as the dissenting judges pointed out, another federal appeals court has ruled that student-initiated and led prayers are permissible. The court’s decision is binding only in the third appellate circuit, which covers the states of Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The opposite view applies in the fifth appellate circuit, which covers the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, 977 F.2d 963 (5th Cir. 1992). ACLU v. Black Horse Pike Regional Board of Education, 84 F.3d 1471 (3rd Cir. 1996). [Wallace v. Jaffree, The Establishment Clause, Prayer on Public Property]

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