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Court's Action Offers No Peace in the 'War' On Graduation Prayer

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WASHINGTON--Backers of the practice of offering prayers at public school graduation ceremonies claimed a victory last week as the U.S. Supreme Court let stand an appeals-court ruling that approved student-initiated and student-led invocations and benedictions at such events.

But supporters of strict church-state separation said their foes were reading too much into the High Court's action, and they vowed to continue their fight against prayers at public school graduations.

The result seems to be that the battle over graduation prayers, which has been raging nationwide for several years, will not abate soon.

"We needed some help, and we didn't get it,'' said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, which asked the High Court to review the lower-court ruling. The N.S.B.A. said that a "religious war is being fought in the public schools in this country'' over the issue.

The High Court on June 7 declined without comment to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District (Case No. 92-1564), which held that a senior class could vote on whether to include a prayer at graduation as long as such prayers were delivered by student volunteers and were "nonsectarian and nonproselytizing in nature.'' (See Education Week, Dec. 9, 1992, and May 19, 1993.)

The three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court re-examined the issues in the Houston-area case last fall in light of the High Court's ruling last year in Lee v. Weisman, a 5-to-4 decision that ruled unconstitutional the Providence, R.I., school district's policy of inviting local clergy members to deliver graduation prayers.

The Fifth Circuit Court concluded 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.'' It upheld the Clear Creek district's policy of allowing students to vote on whether to deliver prayers.

Groups at Odds

Supporters of graduation prayer have urged districts around the nation to adopt the practice upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court. Meanwhile, groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have maintained that the appeals court was wrong and that even student-led prayers are an unconstitutional state establishment of religion.

Prayer advocates last week declared that the Supreme Court had "affirmed'' their approach by not disturbing the Fifth Circuit Court's ruling, which is legally binding only in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

"The decision by the Court not to hear the Jones case makes it clear that students do have the right to include prayer at their graduation ceremonies,'' said Jay A. Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a public-interest law firm associated with the religious broadcaster the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Earlier this year, the center sent letters to some 15,000 school administrators nationwide urging them to allow student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies. The center has also sent legal "SWAT teams'' to meet with school officials who refuse to allow any form of prayer.

Robertson Comments

Mr. Robertson commented on the High Court's action in the Texas case, as well as on its unanimous decision in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District that religious groups must be given after-hours access to school facilities on the same basis as other community groups, during the June 8 broadcast of his television show, "The 700 Club.''

"This is the thing that has been needed in this country,'' Mr. Robertson said. "We ... have opened a door, a wide and effective door, for Christian people in this nation to proclaim their faith.''

Mr. Sekulow, discussing both cases on the same show, said, "Both of them together come out and make a very profound statement to America.''

He added that "students who want to give their Christian testimony in a speech in school, not just at graduation time, but at other times of the year, are now protected.''

Opponents of graduation prayer disputed Mr. Sekulow's interpretation of the High Court's action, noting that the denial of review does not necessarily mean the Justices agree with the lower court's decision.

"There is a real misinformation campaign going on about the significance of the Supreme Court's action,'' said Steven K. Green, the legal counsel of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Noting that the Fifth Circuit Court's ruling is the first among all the federal circuits to examine the issue of student-initiated graduation prayers, he said, "The Court likes to see a division within the circuits before it will hear a case.''

Phillip S. Gutis, a spokesman for the A.C.L.U., accused Mr. Robertson and Mr. Sekulow of "continuing down the path of deliberately seeking to mislead schools superintendents and school boards in their zeal to impose their moral beliefs.''

The A.C.L.U. has backed several lawsuits in recent weeks against districts where administrators have allowed students to decide whether to include prayers at graduation.

Districts that have been sued include those in Loudon County, Va.; Duval County, Fla.; Hart County, Ky.; and Upper St. Clair, Pa.

Mr. Gutis said the A.C.L.U. will not back down because of the High Court's refusal to review the Jones case.

"Our message to school superintendents is, 'Don't be fooled,''' he said.

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