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High Court Declines To Clarify Status of Graduation Prayer

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court has made the legal status of graduation prayers in public schools even more uncertain by throwing out a federal appeals-court ruling that had barred student-led prayers.

The High Court on June 26 vacated a 1994 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit against student-led graduation prayers. The appeals court's ruling, in a case from Idaho, had the effect of barring student-led prayers in nine Western states.

Because the Ninth Circuit ruling clashed with one by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that upheld student-organized graduation prayers, many groups had hoped the High Court would use the Idaho case to resolve the conflict. The question of whether students can decide whether to include prayers in a graduation program has been hotly debated since 1992, when the Supreme Court struck down a Rhode Island district's policy of inviting local clergy members to give prayers at such ceremonies.

The High Court disposed of the appeal in Joint School District No. 241 v. Harris (Case No. 94-1268) on a technicality. Samuel Harris, a member of the family that had challenged student-led prayers at Grangeville (Idaho) High School, graduated in June, and the Court ruled that the lawsuit was moot.

A Ninth Circuit panel had ruled 2 to 1 last November that the school district could not delegate authority to students to include prayers in a graduation ceremony when the district itself was barred from arranging such prayers. (See Education Week, 11/30/94.)

That ruling conflicted with a Fifth Circuit ruling upholding student-led prayers that the High Court let stand in 1993. That case, Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, has been widely cited by school-prayer advocates.

The High Court's action last month pleased prayer advocates to some degree, but many would prefer a definitive statement from the Justices.

"With this conflict among the courts, school districts were genuinely confused, and now they are still confused," said Mark J. Beutler, a lawyer with the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, a conservative organization that backs student-led prayer.

"Many schools have decided that a no-prayer policy is the fiscally safe approach," he added.

James B. Lynch, the lawyer for the Grangeville district, said school districts are stuck in the middle of the prayer debate without adequate direction from the High Court.

"It would be nice to get another Supreme Court decision that would provide more guidance," Mr. Lynch said.

Other Action

In separate actions during the last two weeks of its 1994-95 term, the High Court:

Rejected a Kansas school district's challenge to a state law that sets a uniform statewide property tax for financing public education.

Unified School District No. 244, a rural district in Coffey County, challenged a 1992 law under which 10 of the state's 304 districts generate property-tax revenue that is used to boost spending in the other districts. The district argued that the law resulted in an unconstitutional taking of private property.

The High Court on June 19 let stand without comment a ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court upholding the law. The Kansas court said the law was intended to remedy school-funding inequities. The case was Unified School District No. 244 v. Kansas (No. 94-1792).

Declined to revive an age-discrimination lawsuit filed by a 63-year-old prospective teacher against a prominent Chicago independent school.

The Court on June 19 rejected an appeal by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Harold Johnson, who was rejected for a teaching vacancy at the Francis W. Parker School because he had more than 30 years of experience. Under the school's salary schedule, Mr. Johnson's experience put him at a salary level that the school could not afford.

The E.E.O.C. filed a federal lawsuit charging that the school was in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The commission argued that the school had a right to cap its salary, but could not bar more experienced teachers from competing for positions lower on the salary scale.

A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected the suit, ruling that the law does not bar employment policies that tend to affect older workers more than younger ones. The appeal was Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Francis W. Parker School (No. 94-1558).

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