Graduation Prayers in Public Schools

The United States Supreme Court decision in Lee v. Weisman, 112 S. Ct. 2649 (U.S. 1992), has caused some confusion as to whether prayers are permissible at public school graduation ceremonies. While prayers have been restricted at public school graduations, they have not been completely prohibited. It is important to know what the Court did and did not say.

What Is Prohibited?

To understand what is presently prohibited by the United States Supreme court decision in Lee v. Weisman, it is important to know some of the history regarding that case. The Supreme Court focused on the following three factors: (1) the principal decided that an invocation and benediction would be given at the ceremony and placed prayer on the agenda; (2) the principal chose the religious participant;  and (3) the principal provided the clergyman with a copy of Guidelines for Civic Occasions, produced by the National Council of Christians and Jews, outlining suggestions for delivering non-sectarian prayers.

Justice Kennedy found that these three factors actually placed the school in the position of guiding and
directing the prayer during a public ceremony, and based upon his opinion, this participation and
guidance of the prayer was a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause.

What the Supreme Court prohibited can be summed up as follows: School officials cannot direct that
prayer be part of a public school graduation ceremony, cannot specifically select a religious participant to
say a prayer during a public graduation ceremony, and cannot give guidelines on how to say a prayer
during a public graduation ceremony even if these guidelines are meant o be used in a non-sectarian
manner. In practical terms, a public school cannot invite a clergyman to say a prayer at a graduation
ceremony. As an additional note, this decision probably does not affect graduation prayers at
post-secondary schools.

What is Permitted?

Though a school cannot invite clergy to say a prayer at a public school graduation ceremony, prayers are
still permissible at such ceremonies. A school retains a number of options for the continuation of prayer.

Option One

If a school avoided placing prayer on the agenda and avoided a specific selection of a clergyman to say
a prayer, it would avoid two of the major concerns of the Supreme Court. Consequently, school officials
could use secular criteria for selecting any of the participants. A secular criteria would simply mean one
that does not specifically look for someone who is a religious participant to say a specific religious
message. If a school chose a speaker because of some contribution the speaker made to society and not
because the speaker happened to be a clergyman, then the school would avoid one of the concerns of
the Supreme Court. In short, school officials could choose a speaker or participant because of some
recognized contribution to society. A clergyman could be a participant as long as the selection was made
using secular criteria and not solely because the participant is religious.

A participant selected on a secular criteria could then participate in the public graduation ceremony and
could voluntarily choose to offer a prayer. In this way, the school does not specifically select a religious
person for the purpose of offering prayer. For the school to forbid this participant from saying a prayer
may well be a violation of the person's First Amendment right to freedom of expression. Furthermore, for
a school to prohibit such a person from saying a prayer either before or after the fact could violate the First Amendment Establishment Clause because the school would be showing hostility toward religion.
In summary, a school could select a participant on a secular basis, and that participant could voluntarily
pray.

Option Two

Similar to option one, another option is for a valedictorian, salutatorian, or any other student participant
chosen based upon academic criteria or other secular standards to be a part of the graduation ceremony
to pray voluntarily. In this circumstance, the school would not specifically be placing prayer on the
agenda and would not be selecting the student for the specific purpose of praying. The school may not
even know that the participant would pray until the participant actually stood up and did pray. Again,
under this particular option, for the school to prohibit this student participant from praying could be
construed as a violation of the First Amendment Free Speech and Establishment Clause in that the
school would be restricting speech and showing hostility toward religion.

Option Three

Similar to option two, prayer could still be conducted at a graduation ceremony if the student body were
permitted to elect a student chaplain. This chaplain could be elected by the student body in the same
way that the student body elects class officers. Some schools already elect student chaplains along with
the election of other class officers. As part of the graduation ceremony, the student chaplain could
address the student body along with the other officers of the class, and the address could include a
prayer. In this manner, the school would not be directly endorsing the school officers since they would
be elected by the student body. The school chaplain could certainly be placed on the agenda, and the
school should avoid any efforts to guide or direct the prayer or address given by the school chaplain. As
an additional factor, the chaplain could announce, or the bulletin could state, that while all are asked to
rise for the invocation and benediction, none are compelled to do so.

Option Four

The Court was concerned that school officials specifically placed prayer on the agenda, selected a
clergyman, and gave the clergyman guidelines for saying non-sectarian prayers. If these three factors
were avoided, prayers could be permissible. One way that these factors could be avoided is for school
officials to allow a parent and/or student committee to create the agenda for graduation ceremonies. This
parent/student committee could then come up with its own agenda, which could include prayer. This
parent/student committee could specifically choose a religious participant to say a prayer and could in
fact discuss the prayer with the participant. By permitting a parent/student committee to create the
agenda and select the participants, the school would avoid any appearance of sponsorship. The school
could note that the graduation ceremony or baccalaureate service was not actually sponsored by the
school, but rather was sponsored by the parents and students. The parents and students could request
to use the school facilities in order to conduct the graduation ceremonies.

Option Five

Under the above options one through four, prayer could still be conducted during public school
graduation ceremonies. The First Amendment permits prayer as noted above, but does not require
prayer. In other words, prayer could still be conducted under the circumstances presented above, but
the First Amendment would not require the speaker or participant to pray, the student to pray, or the
school officials to allow a parent/student committee. Under options one through four, there may be some
years when prayer would be conducted and other years when it would not be conducted. In order to
insure that prayer would be conducted on a consistent basis during public school graduations,
community leaders and churches could privately sponsor graduation ceremonies. Currently, many
schools are not large enough to conduct public graduation ceremonies. Such schools often use outside
facilities, and many use church auditoriums. Churches throughout the community could organize public graduation ceremonies or baccalaureate services. The time, place, and manner could be organized by
the churches or other community leaders, and student groups could publicize the information through
their on-campus clubs. Public school students along with teachers and staff could be invited to
participate in the ceremony, so long as the ceremony was held off campus, designed and
choreographed by non-school officials.

School officials could participate in ceremonies conducted at churches so long as they were not
necessarily organizing it as part of a sponsorship of the local school. At such a service, there would be
no prohibition against inviting a religious speaker to address the students.

Summary

Prayers at public school graduations have been limited by the United States Supreme Court. The
tradition that can be dated back as far as July of 1868, when the first public school graduation is officially
documented, will no longer continue as it has for so many years. However, prayer is still permissible at
public school graduation ceremonies.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a school cannot place prayer on the agenda of a public graduation
ceremony, cannot select a religious participant for the purpose of praying, and cannot give guidelines to
a religious participant as to how that participant should pray. However, prayer is still permissible if a
school selects a participant using secular criteria and the participant voluntarily prays. Prayer is also
permissible if a student participant who was selected to be a part of the graduation ceremony based
upon some outstanding achievement voluntarily prays. Prayer could also be conducted by a student
chaplain elected by the student body in the same way class officers are elected. Additionally, prayer
could be permissible if the school officials permitted a parent/student committee to create the agenda
and to select the participants. In this instance, the school should avoid any sponsorship of the ceremony
and may even want to place in the agenda that the ceremony is being sponsored by the parents and
students. Finally, prayer at a public school graduation ceremony is permissible if organized and
conducted by non-school officials, without school sponsorship, and off school premises.

The Information contained herein in not intended to render legal advice. Factual and legal issues may
arise that must be considered in each circumstance. If legal advice is necessary, the services of a
competent attorney should be sought.