Law & Courts

Court Declines Chance to Clarify Graduation-Prayer Law

By Mark Walsh — January 09, 2002 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Public school commencement season this spring could be marked by renewed legal uncertainty because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to review a Florida school district’s policy allowing student messages at graduation. The policy has often resulted in student-led prayers.

The justices on Dec. 10 let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, that upheld the policy of the 127,000-student Duval County, Fla., district, which includes Jacksonville.

The district adopted its policy in 1993, after the Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that clergy-led prayers at graduation ceremonies violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion. The policy—titled “Graduation Prayers"— authorized graduating classes to decide whether to have a brief message delivered by a student at the opening or closing of graduation ceremonies. The vast majority of messages delivered since the policy went into effect have been religious invocations or benedictions.

In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas school district’s policy authorizing student-led prayers before high school football games. The court ruled 6-3 in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that the student invocations authorized by that district’s policy represented government, not private, speech.

After its ruling in Santa Fe, the high court set aside a ruling of the 11th Circuit Court that upheld the Duval County graduation-speech policy, and instructed the lower court to reconsider the case. But last June, the full 11th Circuit voted 8-4 to again uphold the Duval County policy.

The majority of the 11th Circuit court found two key differences between the football-prayer policy struck down by the Supreme Court and the Duval County policy. First, unlike the messages in Santa Fe, Texas, the student graduation messages in Duval County are not subject to review by school officials, the appeals court said. Second, unlike in the Texas district’s policy, it was not “preordained” that student speakers at graduation in Duval County would deliver a religious message, the court said.

Second High Court Appeal

Families challenging the Duval County policy appealed to the Supreme Court with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Public Citizen Litigation Group, based in Washington. They argued that the 11th Circuit court majority had failed to properly apply the Texas ruling to the Duval County policy, which the brief argues was enacted “to preserve a tradition of prayer at graduation.”

“The record is replete with evidence of explicitly labeled invocations and benedictions, most often delivered by class ‘chaplains’ elected to give the ‘messages,’” said the appeal in Adler v. Duval County School Board (Case No. 01-287).

The school district, in a response to the appeal, said the 11th Circuit court was correct to distinguish its policy from the Texas district’s football-prayer policy. Under the policy in the Texas district, the Florida district said, “students specifically voted on whether to pray at games, a constitutionally improper subject for a majoritarian student vote.”

The Duval County policy “neither contemplates, establishes, encourages, nor prohibits religious speech,” the district’s brief said.

The high court declined to review the case without comment or recorded dissent. The action is not a ruling on the merits of Duval County’s policy, but it is likely to foster uncertainty and, perhaps, experimentation by other districts.

The 11th Circuit’s ruling now clearly permits districts in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia to adopt their own policies modeled on Duval County’s. Districts in other states might also try similar language, depending on whether they are subject to other lower-court rulings.

Mathew D. Staver, the president of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla.-based organization that promotes prayer in public schools, said the high court’s action had implications beyond the three states in the 11th Circuit.

“Students around the country may offer prayer or religious messages under a neutral policy that allows for both secular and religious speech,” he argued.

But Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he did not believe the justices were signaling any shift in the court’s views on school prayer.

“If this ‘majority rules’ plan spreads to other states [beyond Alabama, Florida, and Georgia], I think the justices will put a stop to it,” he said.

In another development last month on school prayer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit struck down a Louisiana law that authorized public school teachers and students to start each day with a “brief time in prayer or meditation.”

The case concerned a 1999 amendment to a 1976 law that had authorized a “brief time of silent meditation” in public school classrooms. In 1992, the law was changed to allow “silent prayer or meditation.” In 1999, lawmakers removed the word “silent.”

Several families in the 17,000-student Ouachita Parish district in northeastern Louisiana challenged the change as a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. They won in both federal district court and in a unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit court.

“There is no doubt that the 1999 amendment was motivated by a wholly religious purpose,” the appeals court said in its Dec. 11 ruling. Its sole purpose was “to return verbal prayers to the public schools” in violation of the First Amendment, the court said.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Court Declines Chance to Clarify Graduation-Prayer Law

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Stronger Together: Integrating Social and Emotional Supports in an Equity-Based MTSS
Decades of research have shown that when schools implement evidence-based social and emotional supports and programming, academic achievement increases. The impact of these supports – particularly for students of color, students from low-income communities, English
Content provided by Illuminate Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Supreme Court Blocks Biden Vaccine Mandate Applying to Schools in Much of the Country
The justices ruled 6-3 to stay an Occupational Health and Safety Administration rule that covered schools in 26 states and two territories.
4 min read
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo last April.
The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal vaccine mandate for large employers, including school districts in about half the states.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP
Law & Courts Students Lose Appeal on Right to Civics Education, But Win Praise From Judges Anyway
A federal appellate court panel commended Rhode Island students for the novel effort, but said Supreme Court precedent stood in the way.
3 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table and Lawyer or Judge working with agreement in Courtroom, Justice and Law concept.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
Law & Courts High Court Appears Skeptical of Vaccine Mandate Covering Schools in Over Half the States
The Biden administration's OSHA rule applies to private employers with 100 or more workers, as well as school districts in 26 states.
4 min read
The Supreme Court shown Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Washington. The Supreme Court is taking up two major Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19 at a time of spiking coronavirus cases because of the omicron variant.
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing two Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19.
Evan Vucci/AP
Law & Courts Federal Judge Blocks Biden's COVID Vaccine Mandate for Head Start Teachers
In a challenge by 24 states, the judge's preliminary injunction also blocks a mask mandate for Head Start students age 2 or older.
4 min read
COVID face masks and gavel
iStock/Getty Images Plus