Even under conservative Chief Justice Rehnquist-though not because of him-the Supreme Court has added further restrictions on school prayer. In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the court, in a 5-4 decision, held that it is unconstitutional for public schools to include prayers given by clergy at their official graduation ceremonies. In this case, the principal, Robert E. Lee, had made the decision that a prayer should be given and selected the clergy member who was to deliver the prayer. That was too much involvement by the state for the narrow majority's comfort.
Lower courts have split on whether school board members or superintendents may, as part of a graduation address, recite the Lord's Prayer or other prayers. In a case in a Nebraska high school, a board member, whose son was in the graduating class, was permitted to lead students in the Lord's Prayer in his graduation address, but the ACLU is appealing the District Court's ruling. In another Nebraska school district, however, the state Department of Education reprimanded the superintendent for leading students in prayer at a graduation event.' But what about student-initiated prayer at graduation ceremonies? Well, it's a little less clear, with conflicting decisions in lower court jurisdictions and with a great deal of murkiness as to what constitutes student-initiated prayer as distinguished from school-sponsored prayer. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, in Adler v. Duval County School Board (2001)-see below-ruled that student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies, unrestricted as to content, are constitutional. The Ninth and Fifth Circuits have held that student-led prayers are only permissible if they are nonsectarian and nonproselytizing. The Ninth Circuit found that the school district's "plenary control over the graduation ceremony" meant that it "would have borne the imprint of the district." The Third Circuit, meanwhile, ruled that student-led prayers at graduating ceremonies are unconstitutional, and at least implied their constitutionality wouldn't be saved even if they were nonsectarian and nonproselytizing. With this hodgepodge of opinions it is no wonder, then, that throughout the various jurisdictions, uncertainty reigns.
The Eleventh Circuit case of Adler v. Duval County School Board (2001) arose in Florida, where some students and their families were upset when the Duval County School District permitted its seniors to elect one of their classmates to deliver a religious message at graduation festivities. A student in one of the county's high schools chose to deliver a Christian-based message. In her remarks, the student thanked Jesus for "dying for our sins" and thanked God for "raising him from the dead three days later so that through your son's death we may be at peace with you and thereby may have fellowship with you." A group of offended students and their parents filed a suit, which ultimately failed, because, according to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the students selected the speaker and school officials did not preview the remarks for approval, thus maintaining the school's neutrality. The United States Supreme Court refused to take the case, which means that student-led prayer at graduation ceremonies is probably safe, for now, in that circuit.
In another case, a Pennsylvania graduating high school senior actually had to threaten her school with a temporary restraining order before it would let her allude to her Christian faith in her graduation speech. The principal of Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School told salutatorian Shannon Wray that it might be offensive to some if she spoke about Christ and asked her to rewrite her speech to make it more "inclusive" and "diverse." But it was the school's instructions to her-that her speech should focus on her life's path to graduation-that had led her to discuss her religion in the first place. And this is a crucial point: Christ was central to her life and it would have been intellectually dishonest of her not to emphasize that in her message. Yet those who would erect an enormous wall of separation between religion and public life force people into such dishonesty. According to Wray's attorney, Joel Oster, she wanted to "talk about what her religion meant to her and how it allowed her to get to the point where she was She felt like if she had to give a speech with the religion struck out, it would be an incomplete speech; it would be a lie."
Wray insisted that she wasn't trying to proselytize, but to share the reason for her success in school, the single greatest factor of which, she believed, was her dependence on Christ. The school finally retracted its demand that she delete the paragraphs touching on her Christianity when attorneys for Liberty Counsel said that interfering with the content of Wray's speech would lead to them to request a federal restraining order. Amazingly, even after the school backed down, the superintendent faxed Wray another message imploring her to delete those portions because to include them wouldn't be "fair" to everyone at the ceremony. There were separate rumblings that the school might end the tradition of having valedictorians or salutatorians giving graduation speeches lest future students make Christian allusions. Again, the prevailing assumption in these schools seems to be that Christianity is intolerably offensive to all but Christians.
So as we can see, even when the courts permit or grudgingly tolerate a degree of religious expression in the schools, that's no guaranty that recalcitrant classmates and administrators will make it easy for students wishing to freely exercise their religion. But such obstacles aren't stopping some students. In 2001, the valedictorian at Norfolk High School in Nebraska led her fellow students in prayer-and received a standing ovation for her courage.
In some cases the courts have upped the ante for "disobedient" Christians. In West Virginia, a federal district judge not only outlawed a student-led graduation prayer at St. Albans High School in Kanawha County; he ordered the offending school system to pay $23,000 in legal fees to the eighteen-year-old atheist who brought the suit.
The judge's initial order banning the student-led prayer and saying that the plaintiff would likely suffer irreparable harm if he were exposed to the prayer did not sit well with many of the students, more than one hundred of whom disobeyed the order. Following the lead of one student, they stood, bowed their heads, and recited the Lord's Prayer during a moment of silence. This prompted many relatives in attendance to give the students a standing ovation. At the beginning of the ceremony, one parent shouted "God Bless America" from the bleachers, to which the crowd replied, "Amen." And during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, many in attendance, students and parents, enunciated "under God" louder for emphasis.
The atheist student plaintiff, who ostensibly was in jeopardy of irreparable harm, didn't even bother to attend the graduation ceremony. He said, "I have no use for that pretentious, self-congratulatory ceremony. To me, this ruling is much more significant.
In so many of these cases denying the students' right to pray at school events, the courts engage in lofty rhetoric about the Establishment Clause and in the process almost completely ignore the underlying religious freedom issues. Every time a student's right to invoke God is denied, often due to overblown concerns about the indirect involvement of the state in religion, we must remember that his speech and religious freedom are being suppressed. A case at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, California, illustrates the point. The school administration invited the school's salutatorian, Nick Lassonde, to give a graduation speech. Nick was excited at the invitation and viewed it as an opportunity to tell his classmates how important his Christian faith was to him. The principal required Nick to submit his speech in advance for review. Predictably, though Nick was told before that he could speak on any topic he chose, the principal demanded that references to Nick's faith be deleted. According to the school's attorneys, those references were forbidden because they constituted "proselytizing" or "preaching." Nick was told he could either rewrite his speech as directed or he wouldn't be permitted to speak.
Nick was disheartened because, like Shannon Wray in the Pennsylvania case, he believed he could not fully express who he was as a person without revealing the thing most important to him, his faith in Christ. He felt that he had been censored and denied his speech and religious rights. "I felt, and still feel;' said Nick, "that I was denied a right I had earned, the right to express who I am and how I came to achieve the honor of being salutatorian, based solely on my Christian viewpoint I felt, and I still feel, that the censored portions were the most important part of the speech, for they contained the central message that I felt not only explained who I was as a person, but answered the question implicitly addressed in any graduation speech: how others could follow my example of success and happiness. I believed, and sought to state, that success and happiness in this life depend not on material wealth or personal fulfillment, but upon knowing who God is as our Creator and Heavenly Father ..."
Nick's father said that it would have been disobedient to accept a public honor without giving the glory to God. He added that the school's censorship of these portions of Nick's speech "made me feel that our views as a Christian family were disfavored by the district ... as being too offensive to state publicly."
Again, the underlying purpose of both religion clauses in the First Amendment, the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause, is to protect religious freedom. As we can see in the cases, these clauses are often in tension. That tension, generally speaking, should be resolved in favor of maximizing religious expression. In considering cases like Nick's, we have to ask ourselves whether the suppression of the religious content of his speech furthered or limited the cause of religious expression. Had the school permitted Nick's speech to be delivered in its entirety, would anyone's religious freedom likely have been violated? Just as with the non-participating students in the Santa Fe football prayer case, how can it reasonably be argued that the religious freedom of other students, even those who violently disagreed with the tenets of Christianity, would be abridged by sitting through a speech endorsing Christianity? It is an absurd stretch to conclude that by simply allowing that speech, the state, through the agency of the school, somehow affirmatively endorsed Christianity and thereby intimidated nonChristians. Yet by disallowing those parts of the speech the school clearly suppressed Nick's right to express himself. And in so doing, it didn't just violate his rights in the abstract. The omitted segments were highly relevant. The thrust of his speech was gutted when he couldn't share his foundational beliefs.
It is not just formal prayer at graduation ceremonies that alerts the prayer police. They are also opposed to individual students and high school choirs singing the Lord's Prayer at graduation ceremonies. Two students at Windsor High School in Virginia wanted to sing "The Prayer," an inspirational song, at their graduation ceremony. The song, which mentions God once and talks of faith, has been recorded by Christian and mainstream singers alike, including Celine Dion. School officials refused to let the students sing the song because it would "violate the requirements of separation of church and state." When the students asserted their First Amendment "free exercise" rights, the school simply banned all singing at the ceremony.
In another such case in Woodbine, Iowa, involving a school choir, the complaining students (members of the choir), who were reportedly from an atheist family, didn't want "to be forced" to sing the Lord's Prayer. The Iowa Civil Liberties Union fried a lawsuit on their behalf. Neither the disgruntled students nor the ICLU were satisfied with the choir's offer to compromise by adding a "nonreligious" song "to balance things out." The school superintendent, Terry Hazard, said that the song was selected for its musical content, not its religious value. But one of the objecting students disagreed. "The prayer which they are having us sing for graduation is basically forcing us to sing praise to a God that we don't even believe in," said Donovan Skarin. "The novelty here is that the prayer is to be sung. That's still unacceptable," said Rand Wilson, ICLU legal director.
The U.S. District Court granted the injunction banning the singing of the Lord's Prayer, ending the school's thirty-year tradition. School officials announced that they would not appeal the court's decision. Does this decision mean that choir members can prevent their choirs from singing, for example, "God Bless America" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" or the bulk of the greatest classical choral music ever written? This extreme banishment of God from the classroom means the exclusion of much of the most important art, culture, history, and civilization of the West, and, rock bottom, that's a failure of education, all based on an antiChristian bias and a tendentious reading of the Constitution.
Was this article helpful?