Schools Across US Grapple With Prayer at Graduation After Supreme Court Ruling

IT'S graduation season again and controversy is in the air.

Last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer at public high school graduations violates the separation of church and state. The case, Lee v. Weisman, involved a Rhode Island high school that invited a rabbi to deliver nonsectarian prayers.

Now, school districts nationwide are wrestling with whether the ban applies to student-led prayers.

In March, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), established by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, sent out 15,000 letters to school districts across the nation arguing that graduation prayers initiated by students are not forbidden by the ruling. Mr. Robertson's center has offered to help parents and students sue any school board that bans student prayers at graduations.

"We think student-led, student-initiated prayers are permissible, and conditions for them have been expanded by the appellate court ruling in Texas," says Jay Sekulow, counsel for ACLJ.

The Texas ruling, which was made last November, states that a student may legally deliver an invocation if the graduating class votes in favor of it. This case paved the way for a student-sponsored invocation at Clear Lake High School's graduation ceremony in Houston last Saturday.

In Frankfort, Ind., five students sued their school district after officials banned prayers at graduation. The parties settled with an agreement that officials would not endorse prayer at the ceremony but would not prohibit religious expression either.

Jason Nauman, student council president at Spotswood High School in Penn Laird, Va., intends to include a prayer and Bible verse in his graduation address on June 12. When school officials told him this would not be allowed, he decided to sue with help from ACLJ.

ON the other side of the issue, the American Civil Liberties Union put out a letter arguing that the Supreme Court's ruling prohibits prayer in public-school ceremonies, whether student-led or not. The ACLU has warned that it may seek injunctions against school systems that try to include invocations and benedictions in graduation ceremonies.

Student-school confrontations are creating sparks over the graduation prayer issue in at least a half-dozen states. For example:

* More than 2,000 students in Virginia participated in a school walkout several weeks ago protesting school administrators who plan to abide by the Supreme Court ruling against graduation prayers. Many high school students in Virginia have been wearing white ribbons and staging balloon launches to call attention to the issue. Petitions are being signed and students are picketing county courthouses.

* School administrators in Sheldon, Iowa, voted two months ago to allow the senior class to decide whether prayer should be part of their graduation.

* The Arkansas legislature amended a 1985 equal-access law to allow "student-planned graduate ceremonies and student-planned pre-game activities at sports events," even if they are religious.

* In Tennessee, the legislature passed a law stating that "it is lawful for any teacher in any of the schools of the state ... to permit voluntary participation by students or others in prayer."

* On May 21, a federal judge in Boise, Idaho, ruled that allowing students to vote on whether to include prayer in graduation ceremonies was constitutional. "The Supreme Court has had two recent opportunities to ban all prayer at graduation ceremonies but has declined to do so," the judge wrote.

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