Graduation Prayers in Public Schools - Case Law on Graduation Prayers

Court Rulings on Graduation Prayers and Commencement Prayers in Public Schools

Questions about the constitutionality of graduation and commencement prayers are difficult to answer because the case law varies across the nation. The Supreme Court hasn't had a lot to say about graduation prayers specifically, though they have ruled on school prayers in other contexts, so the rulings of lower courts can have more authority over what is and is not legal for schools to do. This means that the same graduation prayers may be legal in one area of the country but not in another.

The more you know about the court rulings about school prayers generally as well as graduation prayers in particular, the better you'll be able to address specific cases of graduation prayers which you yourself might encounter. The more you know about the case law, the easier it will be for you to object if your local schools try to introduce some sort of prayer to graduation ceremonies.

Government Control of Speech

Whether the government may be perceived as controlling the content of a speech was the standard used in the case of Cole v. Oroville Union High School, which the Supreme Court refused to hear. The Ninth Circuit Court decision made it clear that the extreme evangelizing which the two students wanted to subject the graduates was impermissible. Because of their roles as school speakers and because of the fact that school administrators had a policy of reviewing speeches ahead of time, the court acknowledged that the speeches could reasonably be seen as having a government stamp of approval and endorsement.

Although efforts are made in cases like these to ensure that the prayers offered are as "nondenominational" as possible, even those prayers come with serious problems. Assuming for a moment that truly nondenominational prayers can be devised, people who take their religion seriously can be legitimately offended at the vague platitudes and empty words which are being passed off as "communion" with God.

They have every right to object to the state taking their form of communication with their deity and watering it down in an effort to make it acceptable to the masses. It would be analogous to the state attempting to cut all of the "unpleasant" parts out of the Bible before distributing it to students.

Public vs. Private Speech

The division between public and private speech in the context of graduation/commencement prayers was first addressed in Lee v. Weisman. This case involved not student speakers, but a Rabbi invited by the school administration to offer an official, nondenominational prayer to the students.

By acting to select the person to offer the prayer and by approving of the nature of the prayers before hand, an officer of the state was acting to determine the content of a prayer — something already found unconstitutional in Engel v. Vitale. Even when the prayer is nondenominational, the state is not permitted to impose it upon citizens or students.

There is a further problem inherent in prayers given both by invited adults and, frequently, by students: the perception of coercion. In any given audience, there are bound to be people who do not wish to participate in the prayers in any fashion.

This is difficult when the standard practice is for everyone to stand and bow their heads in silence during prayer. There exists a great deal of social pressure to conform.

Dissenters don't want to participate, but feel as though they must. Even if they stand just to show respect for the service and for others, it is impossible to tell the difference between that and standing because you believe in it and wish to participate. This, too, creates conflict for those who disagree with the prayer.

It may be true that they have the right to stay seated, but this does not change the fact that the state is not allowed to create a social setting where people are under any sort of pressure to feel like they have to participate in a religious ritual. Creating the conditions for social orthodoxy and peer pressure is just as prohibited as direct force for getting people to accept specific religious observances.

It is also true that students are not forced to attend graduation exercises — if the stay away, they can avoid personal conflicts completely while also allowing the majority to have its religious prayers. This, however, is unacceptable. High school graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for people, something students have been aiming for over the course of years. It is a state function which exits for all citizens, not just those who are members of a religious majority. Because of that, a religious majority cannot be allowed to hijack the ceremonies for their own sectarian agenda, forcing all others to feel excluded and unwelcome.

Voting on Graduation Prayers

In Jones v. Clear Creek, the Fifth Circuit Court's decision appears to conflict with Lee v. Weisman. In Jones, the court ruled that a policy allowing high school seniors to vote on whether or not to have prayers at graduation was okay, thus allowing the school administration to approve which prayers could be said and which could not.

The Third Circuit Court came to the opposite conclusion in ACLU v. Black Horse Regional Board of Education, explicitly rejecting the arguments used by the Fifth Circuit Court in their Jones decision. The important lessons from Lee v. Weisman were reinforced: the government is involved in every aspect of what happens at graduation ceremonies and cannot pretend that it is not officially sanctioning prayer, even if it's a prayer that students have voted on Furthermore, students should not be compelled to conform to a particular form of religious worship in order to attend their own graduation.

The most relevant Supreme Court case was Santa Fe v. Doe, where the Supreme Court struck down a policy allowing students to vote to have prayers at a football game. This case incorporates reasoning similar to that used by the Third Circuit Court in its Black Horse ruling. So, while the Supreme Court has tended to favor allowing various forms of government support of religion, it is possible that at some future date it would invalidate student-voted prayers at graduation for the reasons stated above.