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Appeals Court Backs Student-Led Graduation Prayer

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A Texas school district's policy of letting each high school senior class decide whether to have student-led prayers at its graduation ceremony does not violate the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled late last month that the Clear Creek school district's policy does not conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision banning school-sponsored graduation prayer by clergymen in the Providence, R.I., public schools.

The Fifth Circuit Court's Nov. 24 ruling in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District is significant because it creates a way to include prayers in graduation ceremonies without running afoul of the High Court's June 24 ruling in the Rhode Island case, Lee v. Weisman, lawyers said.

In that case, the High Court held that a Providence middle school principal violated the Establishment Clause by inviting a rabbi to deliver prayers at a promotion ceremony. The school administration's involvement meant that, in effect, the government was compelling students to participate in a religious exercise, the Court said. (See Education Week, August 5, 1992.)

The Texas case began in 1987 when the Clear Creek district's policy was challenged in federal court by two students. A federal district judge and the Fifth Circuit Court upheld the policy. The students appealed to the Supreme Court, which held onto the case while it decided the similar appeal from Rhode Island.

Last June, the High Court vacated the Fifth Circuit Court's original ruling and asked it to reconsider the case in light of Lee.

'Coercion Analysis'

The three-judge panel did that, but unanimously concluded that Clear Creek's policy allowing student-initiated prayer did not fail the "coercion analysis'' set forth in the Lee decision.

"We think that the graduation prayers permitted by the [district's policy] place less psychological pressure on students than the prayers at issue in Lee because all students, after having participated in the decision of whether prayers will be given, are aware that any prayers represent the will of their peers, who are less able to coerce participation than an authority figure from the state or clergy,'' said the opinion by Senior Circuit Judge Thomas M. Reavley.

The panel also noted that the district's policy does not mandate a prayer; it merely allows for one if the senior class agrees. Also, it states that the prayer must be given by a student volunteer and be "nonsectarian and nonproselytizing in nature.''

"The practical result of our decision, viewed in light of Lee, is that a majority of students can do what the state acting on its own cannot do to incorporate prayer in public high school graduation ceremonies,'' the opinion states.

Mitchell A. Seider, one of the lawyers for the students who challenged Clear Creek's policy, said the full Fifth Circuit Court would probably be asked to review the panel's decision.

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