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Should prayer be allowed at public high school graduations?
May 31, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
'Tis the season for lawsuits about prayers at graduation.
In late May the American Civil Liberties Union threatened a lawsuit over a planned graduation prayer at a school graduation in Bastrup, La., after a 19-year-old member of the class complained. The school removed the prayer from the program and instituted a "moment of silence" in place of the Lord's Prayer. The graduating senior chosen to announce the moment of silence instead chose to lead "those who share my beliefs" in The Lord's Prayer. The video taken at the graduation shows that most people in the crowd joined in and there was loud applause. Now the ACLU is demanding an apology for what happened in Bastrup and corrective action, including discipline for the graduate who led the prayer, a promise that only adults will lead the moment of silence at future graduations, and instruction for the kids about separation of church and state.
The line that school districts walk on issues of separation of church and state is a narrow one. Based on what I know about the law, I assume a student speaker at a graduation could mention God or deliver a prayer during a graduation speech and it would be considered constitutionally protected free speech. A prayer endorsed by the public school would be forbidden, so what the school was doing before – including a prayer in the graduation program – was illegal. The principal could have turned off the sound system or physically removed the girl from the podium when she began delivering the graduation prayer in Balstrup, but that would have disrupted the graduation.
What the ACLU is demanding sounds like sour grapes to me.
Meanwhile, in Texas, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State have filed a lawsuit on behalf of an agnostic couple and their son, who is set to graduate on Saturday from the Medina Valley High School in the San Antonio suburb of Castroville. Other students plan to include prayer in their speeches at graduation and the boy objects and wants an injunction. A judge ruled in favor of the agnostic couple and their son earlier this week, but now the high school valedictorian has filed a countersuit asking the Court of Appeals to grant an emergency order permitting her to lead a prayer at the graduation ceremony on Saturday. The judge's ruling on the issue might have some impact on high school graduations next year.
When I graduated from high school in 1989, it was still common practice for a local minister to deliver a prayer at graduation. The local ministers and Catholic priest took turns each year giving the ecumenical prayer, which was similar to the benediction that is still given at college graduations.
This apparently all changed about five years later due to a 1994 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed prayer at high school graduations. Most high schools began holding separate baccalaureate ceremonies at local churches a few days before the high school graduation which are not sponsored by the public school district but are attended by most of the graduates. When I typeset information about area high school graduations for our annual graduation supplement, roughly a quarter of the public high schools included information about these separate baccalaureate ceremonies. I assume that the other three quarters of the schools also had community baccalaureate ceremonies and just neglected to include the information.
A separate baccalaureate ceremony would seem to be the easiest solution for schools such as the one in Bastrup, La., or Castroville, Texas. On the other hand, maybe the parents and kids in those districts have more fun doing battle every spring with the ACLU. It will be interesting to see how the judges rule.
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