Court confirms no prayers allowed at graduations

WASHINGTON — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring prayer at public school graduations has been on the books for 10 years, but the issue remains controversial.

A number of situations arise each year that test the matter anew. School boards are willing to risk litigation and school officials are looking for a way to include some kind of prayer in the end-of-year ceremonies.

"A school board that is hell-bent on having prayer at graduation has means available to do it," said Marc Stern, the co-director of the American Jewish Congress' legal department.

Just this week, the AJCongress found out it had successfully argued in U.S. District Court that an Iowa school board was wrong to include the Lord's Prayer at graduations.

Judge Charles Wolle ruled Monday that he found "no basis for ignoring or disavowing the clear teachings" and controlling the Supreme Court precedent.

The AJCongress had joined a brief declaring that the Iowa school board's policy was a "crude invasion of the right to be free of state-sponsored religion."

Wolle noted the 1992 Lee v. Weisman ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which barred prayer from public high school graduation ceremonies. The 5-to-4 decision held that government involvement created "a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school."

Wolle also agreed with the AJCongress that a graduation ceremony is not a "public forum designed to accommodate the free speech and free exercise of religious rights of the students."

The case was known as Donovan Skarin and Ruby Skarin et al. v. Woodbine Community School District and Board of Education for Woodbine Community School District.

It might have been resolved differently elsewhere in the country, Stern said, noting that in Utah or Texas the case would have been more difficult to win.

The 1992 Supreme Court case is the controlling precedent, but a 2001 case allowing religious groups to use school facilities after school hours has made some rethink the issue of prayer at graduation.

In the 2001 case, the high court came close to saying explicitly that there should be equal treatment of religious and secular speech. Some school officials may take that as a sign that prayer at graduation may not be such a problem after all.

Many school officials feel there ought to be prayer at high school graduations, Stern said, but there still is no "wave" of cases, and school attorneys often advise their clients not to push the issue.

Every year around graduation time, the Anti-Defamation League responds to a number of phone calls from people concerned that the ceremony will include school-sponsored religious content.

"There are always those who believe this is a Christian country and the Constitution gives them and the government the right to have prayer at graduation," said Steve Sheinberg, ADL's assistant director of legal affairs.