A Florida school district’s policy allowing high school seniors to vote on whether a member of their graduating class may deliver a commencement message that could include a prayer does not violate the U.S. Constitution, a federal appeals court ruled last week.
The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, voted 10-2 to uphold the Duval County school district’s policy.
After the U.S. Supreme Court barred clergy-led graduation prayers in 1992, the 127,000-student district decided to allow graduating seniors to select one of their own to deliver a two-minute message “without monitoring or review by school officials.”
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|Read the decision in Adler v. Duval County, from Findlaw.com.|
The policy differs from that of some other districts in that it does not specifically mention student-led prayers.
Several students and parents challenged the policy as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against state establishment of religion. They argued that a student speaker who delivers a prayer under the policy has the implicit blessing of the school district.
The appeals court majority disagreed.
“Where the student is chosen in a neutral way and where the student is allowed complete autonomy over the message, the student’s speech is her own,” said the March 15 majority opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus.
The dissenters said the policy’s “only credible purpose is to maximize the chance that prayer will continue to play a prominent role in Duval County graduations.”
Lawyers for the families challenging the policy indicated last week they would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
On March 29, the high court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case involving the Santa Fe, Texas, district’s policy authorizing student-initiated, student-led prayers at high school football games. The district also authorizes students to deliver prayers at graduation, but the justices chose to limit their review of the case to prayer at the games.
A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Court Upholds Fla. District’s Graduation-Message Policy