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Graduation Season Is Marked by Split Over Issue of Prayers at Ceremonies

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By Mark Walsh

When the graduating seniors at Twenty-Nine Palms (Calif.) High School assemble for their commencement this week, the prayers that have marked the ceremony in years past will be missing.

The California Supreme Court recently ruled that prayers offered at public-school graduation ceremonies violate the First Amendment's prohibition against state establishment of religion. (See Education Week, May 15, 1991.)

"This year, there will be no prayer whatsoever," said Richard McCliman, principal of the school in rural San Benardino County. "We explained it to the kids and they accepted it."

On the other side of the country, meanwhile, last week's graduation ceremony at Somerville (Mass.) High School included an invocation by a Roman Catholic priest and a benediction by a Protestant minister.

The clergymen participated in the event despite a ruling against prayers at graduations last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, whose decisions are binding in Massachusetts.

"Someone showed me a [Somerville] commencement program from 1902 that included an invocation and benediction," said the school's principal, Anthony Fedele, who made the decision to continue the tradition this year.

"We have always done it and it's never been an issue," he said. "I had some schools complimenting us on maintaining prayer."

Several other Massachusetts high schools also included prayers in their graduation ceremonies this year, in apparent disregard of a memorandum from the state education department reminding them of the First Circuit Court's ruling.

By this time next year, school administrators hope to have the final word on the constitutionality of graduation prayers. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the First Circuit Court's ruling in Lee v. Weisman, in which prayers at a junior-high-school commencement in Providence, R.I., were declared unconstitutional.

The High Court most likely will hear the case this fall and could issue its decision before the end of the 1991-92 school year.

High Level of Discord

The high level of community discord caused by the issue this year points to the need for a definitive ruling, school-law experts say.

"We want to see these issues settled," said Ivan Gluckman, general counsel of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "Otherwise it is going to be a cause of continuing problems for our members."

At issue is a practice that often takes no more than a few minutes at the beginning or end of a graduation ceremony.

Supporters of the practice argue that prayers lend solemnity to the rite of passage that marks the beginning of the transition from adolescence into adulthood. Proponents add that bans on invocations and benedictions infringe on their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

Opponents counter that regardless of the faith of the clergyman offering such prayers, the subtle message to those in the audience is one of state endorsement of religion.

Suit Filed in Idaho

"Because the prayers offered during these ceremonies do not conform to my own religious beliefs, the message to me is that my views are wrong and that what I am teaching my children is wrong," said Phyllis Wright Harris, who this year sued the Grangeville School District in Idaho over prayers at graduations. Ms. Harris, whose daughter graduated this year from Grangeville High School, prefers to keep her own religious beliefs private.

Ms. Harris's suit was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has also sued or threatened to sue several other districts in Idaho and Utah.

A federal judge late last month refused to bar prayers during commencement exercises in Grangeville and two other Idaho schools, saying the issue should await a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The benediction given at last year's graduation at Orem High School in Orem, Utah, is typical of many. The student speaker thanked "our Father in Heaven" for friends, parents, and faculty for their help "in our high-school career." He then concluded by saying, "We say these things in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ. Amen."

That benediction, among others, was cited by the aclu in a lawsuit filed last year against the Alpine School District, which includes Orem High School, and the nearby Granite School District. The suit triggered a uproar in the heavily Mormon state, as the powerful Mormon church and Gov. Norman H. Bangerter were drawn into the debate on the side of graduation prayer. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

Not all lawsuits have sought to ban prayers. Shortly after school officials in Oldham County, Ky., voted to ban graduation prayers last December, a group called the Oldham County Coalition for Prayer filed suit, claiming that the policy shift infringed on its members' rights to freedom of speech and religion.

"We believe this is a form of theistic expression being prevented by prior restraint," said the group's lawyer, Richard Masters. The case is still pending.

New Standard?

The Bush Administration has filed papers in the Rhode Island case that urge the High Court to support graduation prayers. Those briefs, however, also recommend that the Justices use the case to re-examine the legal test they set in the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman for determining whether a governmental policy or practice is an unconstitutional establishment of religion--a suggestion that has some education groups worried.

Since its adoption, the Lemon test has figured prominently in practically all of the High Court's decisions involving church-state relations in schools.

The National School Boards Association, in a friend-of-the-court brief recently filed in the Rhode Island case, asked the Court to preserve the test.

"Any move from the strong stand" in favor of the test "will be a clarion call to those who are working to establish religion in the schools," the group argued.

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