Graduation PrayerQUESTION: Is graduation prayer acceptable in public school?ANSWER:
Is graduation prayer acceptable in public school? This is a very controversial subject along with the question as to whether public prayer should be allowed in the school system. Since there are many pros and cons regarding the subject of prayer in graduation ceremonies, I will list here the reasons given for such prayer as well as reasons against.
Many conservative Christians are furious that school boards and courts will not allow them to have a prayer freely included in graduation ceremonies because they feel this is a time when a young adult goes through a major life transition. Therefore, the graduating class should have the privilege of including a prayer to God asking Him for help to go through this life change.
State sponsored prayer in the public schools, whether in the classroom or at graduation ceremonies, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and offends the consciences of those who would prefer not to participate in the prayers. It is said that the proper place for corporate prayer regarding graduation should be presented in a place of worship. Baccalaureate services sponsored by a community's religious institutions reflect the bedrock of American tradition to free people exercising their chosen religious commitments under the absolute protection of a free state.
Essentially, all prayers led by a public school official or a clergyperson from the community are considered to be unconstitutional. And, the court rulings on the constitutionality of student-initiated, student-led prayers are contradictory. I have included, however, one case that was decided by the courts to be labeled constitutional.
In 1992, student led graduation prayers in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi were labeled as constitutional as long as the prayer was approved by most of the graduating class, the prayer was given by a student, and the prayer must be nonsectarian. The definition of that word, however, is not clear but strictly speaking, it would mean the prayer could not mention God because followers of some religions do not recognize a personal God. The prayer also must be "non-proselytizing," which would mean the prayer must not induce someone to conform to one's own religious faith.
In the year 2001, the valedictorian for the graduation class at Washington Community High School near Chicago, Illinois and her parents filed a federal lawsuit asking that a federal judge block school sanctioned prayers at the graduation ceremony. It was said that the cause of educating young persons is not advanced when students are subjected to prayer officially sanctioned and orchestrated by school officials. Supposedly, the rights of parents are violated. School officials should not interfere with the rightful role of parents in determining when and how their children should pray. The group of seniors raised concerns with school officials about the inclusion of an invocation and benediction during the ceremony and they requested the prayers be discontinued. The prayers were described as "student-led." Volunteers asked for the assignment, and those delivering the invocation and benediction were required to submit their remarks to a faculty member who reviewed and approved the material before the ceremony. The case to cancel the prayers at the graduation ceremony was refused.
However, the matter has never been decided upon as to whether it is constitutional or unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has never ruled one way or the other as to whether organized prayer is okay as long as it is "student initiated, non-sectarian and non-proselytizing" in nature. One federal appeals court has approved prayer during public school graduation ceremonies under these conditions, but other federal courts have disagreed with that ruling. It may not be long before the problem will end up before the Supreme Court.
Some state legislatures are moving to enact laws permitting public school prayer that is non-sectarian and non-proselytizing. Such legislation is unconstitutional because it gives government officials the power to determine which prayers qualify.