Student Prayers at Graduation Ceremonies

June 1998

A Florida judge refused to suspend senior messages from a Jacksonville high school that have typically included prayers. These two-minute messages are given by seniors selected by the graduating class and are not subject to review by school administrators.

This week the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a preliminary injunction against these messages sought by the same attorneys representing three students and two parents. The ruling came the same week that graduation ceremonies would begin in Duval County. The Court did question why attorneys had waited until May to file their case and then sought an emergency ruling, but did agreed to expedite their appeal of the original ruling.

The right for students to pray publicly at graduation exercises is still one of contention between attorneys, and a precedent-setting court case has yet to clear up the controversy. ACLU lawyers have argued that these prayers are unconstitutional, state-sponsored prayers. They argue that parents and students should not be forced to sit through prayers during commencement exercises.

Other attorneys have argued that such prayers by high school students are a protected form of free speech. The original ruling upheld that argument as have other lower-court rulings. Nothing about this week's ruling is precedent-setting, but the appeal will hold interest for those concerned about religious issues in the public education environment.

Until a clear ruling comes form a higher court, public education officials will be caught in the middle. Allowing student-initiated prayers may invite complaints from those who see them as inappropriate in a setting that involves a diverse population. Hindering them, however, may be a violation of the free-speech rights of students.

For more information on this case you may consult this web page at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University: http://www.freedomforum.org/religion/1998/6/2flaprayer.asp

 

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