School prayer is a constant subject of contention and misinformation. At this time of the year, prayers at graduation ceremonies particularly come into question. Exactly what is allowed? In one case in South Carolina, this question came to a judgment last week, and neither side is happy. One side — the side opposing school prayer — has now announced an intention to appeal the decision.
It must be understood that school prayer doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. For legal purposes, we refer to prayer that appears to be school-sanctioned. This may mean that the prayer is led by a teacher, coach, or administrator, included in official event programs, or otherwise promoted by the school. Prayer is always a protected right of individuals (with the obvious exception of disrupting class — the right, for instance, to pray out loud in the middle of an exam, disturbing others, isn’t protected, and the right to miss class for prayer may not be protected).
In this case, the suit called for a stop to prayers that were placed in graduation programs and led during the ceremony as an official, school-promoted portion of the event. The court responded, affirming what courts have agreed many times: if the prayer is clearly school-sanctioned, it is illegal. However, the decision pointed toward a gray area: can students lead a prayer at a graduation ceremony, if it isn’t promoted by the school, included in programs, or at the behest of administration?
According to USA Today, the court affirmed that students do indeed have that right.
U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks declared that to prevent students from leading a prayer at graduation would go beyond separation of church and state, and be a “hostility toward religion.” He called such prayer “cultural residue.”
Other higher courts have disagreed. According to Cornell Law Institute, a case heard before the Supreme Court in 2000 discussed whether a student could lead Christian prayers over the loudspeaker at football games — and the court determined that this would indeed be considered school-sanctioned, and unacceptable.
According to a press release from the American Humanist Association, the complainant in this case, backed by attorneys at the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, will appeal, asking that student-led prayer, as part of the graduation ceremony, also be formally forbidden.
“Federal courts have been unanimous in determining that prayers at public school graduations are unconstitutional,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “It’s alarming that the District Court upheld permitting Christian prayers to be delivered to impressionable young children in a Christian venue.”
What’s your stance on school prayer?
[photo credit: Museumsnacht 2015 #21]