PRAYERS AT GRADUATION CEREMONIES IN U.S. PUBLIC SCHOOLS
||"[The] Constitution forbids the State to exact religious
conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school
graduation." U.S. Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy (1992), Lee v.
||"This is nothing but the devil working against
Christ. I am a red-blooded American. The Constitution gives me the
right to pray anywhere and I shall do it." Citizen of Rocky
Grove, PA, at a public meeting about graduation prayers.
||"I'm not interested in hearing a prayer said because I believe
that it infringes on my right not to pray," Brian Kitchen,
graduating student at Penn State Erie, 1997-OCT 1
||"People who don't believe in prayer at graduation should keep
their opinion to themselves and not bother people who believe in it."
Ryan Bowers, sophomore student at Penn State Erie, 1997-OCT 1
Graduation prayer and individual beliefs:
Prayer during graduation is a "hot button"
subject. People's emotions tend to run high:
||Many conservative Christians are furious that the school boards and
courts will not allow them to have a prayer freely included in
This is a time when a young adult goes through a major life
transition. They feel that their God should be acknowledged in public
at this important occasion. They strongly object to what they feel are
restrictions on their religious freedom.
||Many adherents of non-Christian religions are outraged if the
Christian majority wants to impose their own religious practices on a religiously diverse public. They object to Christian
invocations and benedictions. Prayers may sound blasphemous to them, since the prayers
discount even the existence of their own deities.
||Some Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics, and other individuals with no affiliation to an organized
faith group object to any public
religious prayer. They find any prayer at graduation to be
Background material: Students right to pray in public schools:
Student-initiated prayer is allowed in various situations and locations
in the public school system. For example:
||In school busses.
||At the flag-pole.
||In after-hours student religious clubs,
if there are any other student-run clubs in the school.
||In the school hallways.
||In the cafeteria.
||In the classroom before or after scheduled classes.
Not only are these permitted, they are actually protected forms of
speech under the U.S. Constitution. Students are guaranteed the right to
pray, as long as it is not disruptive, and as long as it is not during
Background material: Prayer in the classroom:
Prayer is not normally
permitted as a scheduled part of classroom activities. That would violate the principle of church-state separation which is has been defined by court interpretations
of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The separation principle is extended to
public schools as an arm of the government. (An exception may be permitted
if, during the school year, a mixture of prayers, statements, etc are
delivered, using material derived from a number of different religions and
secular sources. To our knowledge, this has never been tried in a school
or ruled upon by a court) .
As interpreted by the courts, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that public
school teachers, principals, and boards be religiously neutral:
||They may not promote a particular religion as being superior to any other.
||They may not promote religion in general as superior to a secular approach to life.
||They may not promote secularism in general as superior to a religious approach to life.
||They may not be antagonistic to religion in general or a particular religious belief in
||They may not be antagonistic to secularism.
||They must neither advance nor inhibit religion.
Prayer at graduation ceremonies:
With these rules in place with respect to classroom prayer, one would
expect that prayer during graduation ceremonies would also be prohibited.
However, case law is mixed on this point. Some courts have ruled that
prayer at graduation ceremonies deserves special treatment, because they
are one-shot events -- a student only experiences it once. Thus, the
linkage of church and state would not be repeated as it would be if
prayers were given at the beginning of each school day in a
More information on court decisions and
Searching for a solution, acceptable to all:
It is possible to compromise on the matter of school prayer. However,
it is not an easy task. Passions run very high on these matters. It is
arrange a meeting of religious and secular folk for the purpose of dialog
and resolution. Even if such a meeting is held, many attendees probably will
not want to budge from their position.
Some alternatives that have been successfully explored are:
||Moment of silence: Substitute a moment of silence instead of
the prayer. The graduating students
and audience can then spend the time in any way that they wish: make a
silent prayer, recollect moments from the past, meditate on the
possibilities of the future, etc.
||Separate religious service: Organize a separate baccalaureate
religious service which is separate from the graduation ceremony for
those students who wish to have a strong religious content to their
graduation process. This could be an inter-denominational service,
including students and their friends and family from all Christian
faith groups. Alternatively, it could even be an inter-faith ceremony
involving prayers and statements from a variety of religions.
||Multiple prayers and secular statements: Have an time set aside in the
program to allow students of all religions to recite a prayer from
their faith tradition, and allow students with no religious
affiliation to read a statement for the occasion. The audience might
hear Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan and Church of Scientology
prayers. They may hear an Atheist, Humanist and Agnostic read a
inspirational, secular statements. All of the religions and moral/ethical
beliefs of all of the
students would be presented. Students and attendees would come away from
the service with an appreciation of the diversity of religious and
moral beliefs in the community. It could be an educational experience
St. Columba’s Middle School in New Delhi, India partly followed this
path. Their middle school graduation service on 1999-DEC-17 began with
a Prayer Service. Verses recited
from The Bible, The Bhagwad Geeta, the Koran, and the Guru Granth
Possible ways of circumventing the law:
Mathew D. Staver has proposed a number of ways that might narrowly meet the
requirements of court decisions, yet still allow sectarian prayer at a
graduation ceremony. 4 First, there would be no mention of an
invocation, benediction or other prayer in the printed program. Then one of the
following techniques might work:
||The organizer could choose a speaker, perhaps a clergyperson, on a secular
basis. This could be on the basis of some past contribution to the community (e.g.
he was elected volunteer
of the year). The speaker would be asked to give an introduction and finale
at the ceremony. She/he could decide unilaterally to give an invocation and
||Proceed as above, except that a valedictorian, salutatorian or any other
student participant would be chosen on some secular criteria - e.g. academic
||The students could elect a student chaplain, just as they also elect other
class officers. The chaplain could be asked to deliver a speech. The
chaplain could decide on his own initiative to include a prayer.
||The school officials could decide to cancel the regular graduation ceremony. A church, ministerial association, community group or
group of parents could then decide to organize a replacement ceremony. They could then design the program with as much religious content as
wished. The parents could then request to use school facilities for what had
become a purely community function.
There are a couple of serious problems with all of these methods of
circumventing the law:
||To inject Christian prayers into a graduation ceremony will cause distress
to many non-Christians, and secularists. The ceremony itself will be
disrupted, even if it is only due to the students, parents and
friends knowing that some people are upset. This violates the Ethic
of Reciprocity that forms a part of essentially every religion. In
Christianity, this is the Golden Rule:
Matthew 7:12: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that
men should do to you, do ye even so to them."
||Of concern to Christians who want to include prayers in graduation
services, "Jesus warned us about practicing our piety before others
and told us not to pray on the street corner where we can be seen, but go
into our closet and shut the door and pray in secret (Matthew 6:1-6)."
5 More details on public prayer.
The information above is intended for general educational use only. It is not
intended to dispense legal advice. If you are involved in the organization of a
public school or college graduation ceremony which is to include a prayer, we
strongly recommend that you consult an attorney with some expertise in
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