Court Rejects Policy on Graduation Messages

By Mark Walsh — May 26, 1999 3 min read

A federal appeals court has struck down a Florida school district’s policy allowing students to deliver opening and closing messages at graduation ceremonies. The guidelines were a “wink and a nod” way of permitting prayer, the court said.

In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in Atlanta, rejected the Duval County district’s policy of allowing senior-class members to vote on whether to have brief messages delivered by their classmates during graduation ceremonies.

The policy doesn’t expressly encourage prayers, but it was formulated the year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down clergy-led graduation prayers in the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman.

“This policy does not disassociate student-initiated sectarian and proselytizing prayer at a school-controlled graduation ceremony from the imprint of the state,” the appellate-panel majority said in its May 11 ruling in Adler v. Duval County School Board.

The 11th Circuit is the fourth federal appeals court to rule on student-chosen messages or prayers at graduation ceremonies, and the outcomes have been splintered.

In 1995, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, based in Philadelphia, struck down a New Jersey district’s policy permitting the senior class to vote on whether to have a student deliver a prayer at graduation.

Last year, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, upheld an Idaho district’s policy that allows high schools to invite four top-ranked students to deliver uncensored messages at graduation ceremonies. But the full 9th Circuit court has set aside that ruling, and a larger panel of judges is reconsidering the case.

In 1992, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, upheld a policy that permits students to vote on whether to have prayers at graduation, as long as the prayers are student-delivered and are “nonsectarian and nonproselytizing.”

That ruling, known as Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, came shortly after the Supreme Court had struck down clergy-led graduation prayers. Many religious conservatives pointed to the Jones ruling as laying out a constitutionally permissible way around the Lee v. Weisman decision.

Coerced Prayers?

Florida’s 126,000 Duval County district, which includes Jacksonville, was following the Clear Creek model with its 1993 guidelines for student messages at graduation.

The senior class had to vote to have such messages, and a member of the class had to deliver them. That spring, 10 of the district’s 17 high schools had some form of student-delivered religious message at their ceremonies, according to court papers.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of several Duval County students challenged the guidelines. A federal district judge upheld the district, but the 11th Circuit panel overturned that decision.

“The school system believed it could give a ‘wink and a nod’ ” to constitutional restrictions by allowing students to vote to have prayers when the district itself clearly could not include them in the graduation program, states the majority ruling, written by Chief Judge Joseph W. Hatchett.

Because the school district itself authorized the student- initiated message system, it is a form of “coerced participation” that violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government establishment of religion, the ruling states.

In his dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus said the students’ decision whether to have messages at their graduation ceremony did not amount to government action.

The Duval County school board voted 4-3 last week to ask the full 11th Circuit court to rehear the case. The board indicated it would appeal to the Supreme Court if the 11th Circuit declined the rehearing.

The 11th Circuit covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington, said the constitutionality of student-led graduation messages or prayers is a matter of geography until the Supreme Court takes on the issue again.

“For a long time, the 5th Circuit’s Clear Creek ruling was the one everyone looked at,” he said. “Now, that ruling is an aberration.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 1999 edition of Education Week as Court Rejects Policy on Graduation Messages