As court takes case, graduations in area often feature prayer Commencement prayers due high court scrutiny.

March 20, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court is to decide once and for all if prayer can be part of public school graduation ceremonies.

Civil libertarians argue that prayer should not be allowed, citing the constitutional separation of church and state. Prayer advocates say the issue is separate from such thorny church-state matters as prayer in the public schools.

While the argument drags on, however, the fact is that prayer has long been common at public school commencements.

"A general sort of benediction frequently occurs at graduation ceremonies," says Robert Dubel, the superintendent of Baltimore County schools. "These prayers might mention God or the Almighty, but they are not identified as expressly Christian or Jewish or of any other faith."

Richard Bavaria, a spokesman for Baltimore County schools, says some of the graduation prayers have been led by clergy.

Howard County Superintendent Michael Hickey calls graduation prayers "pretty widespread" within his jurisdiction.

"But they don't endorse any particular religion," Hickey says.

At Baltimore public schools, praying during commencements "does happen occasionally," says spokesman Karen Poe.

Prayers are routinely offered at graduations throughout the United States, and, in some parts of the country, they are so sectarian as to mention Jesus Christ specifically, says Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a non-profit organization in Silver Spring that monitors church-state issues.

"In the Deep South, especially, where you see more fundamentalist Christians, the prayers invoke Jesus," Boston says. "They go beyond the generic 'God' or 'Supreme Being' invocation you tend to hear."

Last Monday, the Supreme Court said it would review lower court rulings that barred guest speakers from offering prayers at public high and middle school graduations in Providence, R.I. The lower courts had ruled in favor of Daniel Weisman, who sued the Providence school board for letting a rabbi pray at his daughter Deborah's middle school graduation last year. The Weismans are Jewish.

Susan Goering, the legal director for the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, recalls a similar case four years ago. A University of Maryland student tipped off the ACLU's Washington and Maryland chapters that the university was planning a prayer for a commencement ceremony. The two chapters co-sponsored a suit to block the prayer, but it was judged moot because the plaintiff had graduated by the time the case reached court.

The state's Department of Education has no formal policy for graduation prayers, says department spokesman Beth Campbell, adding, "We leave it up to each jurisdiction's school board to come up with its own policy."

The Baltimore and Baltimore County schools have similar general guidelines that call for the schools to be "neutral" in religious matters. The schools can discuss religion in history and culture courses, but they cannot promote any faith, according to the guidelines.

Asked if allowing graduation prayers violates the idea of neutrality, Dubel says, "That's a reasonable question, but we have just never felt that we had to draw the line that sharply. We've never had to address any complaints" about prayers at public school commencements.

Poe says, "You have to keep in mind that offering a prayer at a graduation is not like imposing a belief on children. You're talking about a short prayer at the end of the child's school career, not an hour and a half of indoctrination in a classroom."

But, says Goering, students in middle school and high school are young enough to be swayed to a belief by graduation prayers.

"For these students, there's the mystique of the school and the government having someone pray at such an important event," she says. "The school gives its blessing, so to speak, and that makes an impression on some kids."

The Supreme Court has banned prayer in public schools since 1962. Providence school officials, with assistance from the Bush administration, will argue that graduation prayers are different from prayer in the schools.

"Whatever special concerns about subtle coercion may be present in the classroom setting -- where inculcation is the name of the game -- they do not carry over into the commencement setting, which is more properly understood as a civic ceremony than part of the education mission," Justice Department lawyers said in a "friend of the court" brief.

Court observers have claimed that the administration will use this case to launch an attack on the three-part test used by the court for 20 years to determine whether a government practice violates the church-state restriction. The test has struck down any practice that lacks a secular purpose, advances religion or promotes excessive entanglement with religion.

The court will hear the Weisman case later this year and probably make a decision in the spring of 1992.

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