Graduation Prayers OK'd

school prayer generic
Student-led graduation messages, which opponents call official school prayer in thin disguise, may continue in Jacksonville, Fla., high schools. The Supreme Court said Monday it will not review a lower court's ruling that found the policy constitutionally sound.

A group of students and parents sued to block the policy in Duval County, which allowed the senior class to choose "chaplains" to give inspirational addresses at graduation. The school district calls the addresses "messages," and notes that they may be entirely secular.

"The clear purpose of the challenged policy is to preserve a tradition of prayer at graduation," opponents led by the consumer and public interest group Public Citizen claimed in asking the high court to step in.

Any time the Court refuses to hear a case, says Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen, it's implicitly affirming what the lower courts have ruled on the subject while at the same time keeping its options open for future similar cases. So the Court is saying here that so long as students are not forced to offer a prayer at graduation, so long as they are free to select their own message, it's not a violation of the church and state clause of the first amendment.

In other action, the court:

  • Unanimously upheld the authority of police to investigate new crimes by searching the homes of people on probation for previous offenses. The decision in a California case reversed a finding that police investigating vandalism violated the Constitution's protection against unreasonable search by barging into the home of a man on probation for an unrelated drug crime.
  • Agreed to decide whether former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other Clinton administration figures can be sued for misleading an American woman, Jennifer Harbury, about the fate of her Guatemalan rebel husband. An appeals court held that the officials unlawfully denied her access to the courts by concealing facts about Efrain Bamaca-Velasquez, who disappeared in 1992.
  • Refused to consider whether it would be constitutional to require that Russell Eugene Weston, charged with killing two policemen in the U.S. Capitol, be forced to take medication for mental illness so he would be fit for a trial that could result in his execution. That sets the stage for Weston to be medicated and tried.
  • Accepted for review the case of a Tennessee man whose lawyer offered no proof that he should not be put to death for murder. An appeals court said Gary Bradford Cone had a legitimate claim that his lawyer was ineffective.
Invocations and benedictions were allowed at Duval County's 15 public school graduations before a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited clergy-led prayers at public school graduations.

In 1993, school officials adopted a new policy letting high school seniors decide whether to choose a fellow student to give a "brief opening and/or closing message" at graduation. The student would decide the messge's content with no review by school officials.

A group of students and their parents sued in 1998, saying the policy amounted to a government establishment of religion, barred by the Constitution's First Amendment.

Under the policy, students at some schools have elected a class chaplain to lead invocations and benedictions, or to give messages designated as "reflections" or "inspiration."

The Supreme Court's landmark 1962 decision barred organized, officially sponsored prayers from public school classrooms.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has twice upheld the policy — most recently in response to a Supreme Court order last year.

The high court told the Atlanta-based appeals court to rethink the case in light of the Supreme Court's decision in 2000 to bar student-led prayers at public high school football games. The justices said such prayers violated the constitutional principle that government will not impose religion.

The appeals court majority responded by reiterating its view that the Florida policy is constitutional because students make the choice about what to hear at graduation, and prayer is not the only choice they can make.

"Student prayer from the graduation more coercive, and more imbued with state endorsement, than prayer at football games," opponents argued to the Supreme Court.

According to Cohen, the one fact that distinguishes this case from other cases in which the Court has not been as kind to prayer in the school context is that in this case, students could offer any message, and not just a prayer, and that choice, apparently, makes all the difference in the world to federal judges, including the justices of the Supreme Court. Remember, the Court just last year prohibited student-led prayers at football games.

While this is not a ruling on the merits in favor of student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies it certainly has that effect and it may very well encourage other school districts in other parts of the country to create this sort of a policy, says Cohen. It's not as strong a statement by the Court that it approves of this practice as an affirmative ruling might have been, but it is close.

The Jacksonville school board's lawyers have said the policy "neither establishes nor prohibits religious speech. It merely permits graduating senior classes to decide whether or not to include an unrestricted message as part of their ceremonies."

The case is Adler v. Duval County School Board, 01-287.

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