Ban on graduation prayers provokes mixed reaction

June 26, 1992|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer Staff writers Mark Bomster, Anne Haddad, Sherry Joe, Amy Miller, Monica Norton and Sherrie Ruhl contributed to this article.

Wednesday's Supreme Court decision outlawing prayers at public school graduation ceremonies has left many Baltimore-area school officials and clergy disappointed, some of them confused and others not a bit surprised.

But what seems certain is that, while graduating high school students may still have keynote speakers, valedictorians and cap-and-gown pomp, the prayers that had outlasted by 30 years a ban on religion in the classroom will be gone.

The high court's decision in a Rhode Island case struck down the practice of prayer at school exercises -- even if those prayers are written in a supposedly "non-sectarian" way.

Public high schools in Baltimore and in each of the metropolitan counties -- although not every school -- had an opening or closing prayer, an invocation or benediction, at graduations this year.

Next year, as a result of the ruling, "there will be no prayers at graduation," said Margaret-Ann F. Howie, legal director for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "You do not want to give the imprimatur of the public school system to any kind of prayer."

The Supreme Court justices, narrowly divided on the 5-4 decision, refused to use the case as an opportunity to change the 30-year ban on officially sponsored worship in public schools and fashion a new interpretation of the Constitution's ban on "an establishment of religion."

The decision received a mixed response yesterday from school officials and ministers in the metropolitan area -- some surprised that even "neutral" prayers now were forbidden and others perceiving it as further erosion of human values.

Kenneth Lasson, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and an expert in civil liberties, said that even the old ban on school prayer had not stopped the practice.

"Although the law of the land is there is no school prayer . . . in practice that's widely ignored, and there is school prayer and it's widely practiced," he said.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Maryland chapter, said that principals might simply replace public prayers with a moment of silence intended for meditation -- much as they are permitted to do at opening exercises each school day.

Under state law, elementary and secondary school students can be required "to meditate silently for approximately one minute" at opening exercises, according to Valerie V. Cloutier, principal counsel for the state Department of Education. Students and teachers are free to "read the holy Scripture or pray," the law states. But they must do so silently, Ms. Cloutier said.

"The kids can just stand there. There is no oral presentation of any prayer," she said.

Presumably, school officials also would be able to require a moment ofsilence before a graduation ceremony or an assembly, she said.

Ms. Cloutier said that the State Board of Education has issued no guidelines governing prayers or invocations at school events. And she knew of no complaints from parents or others offended by schools that may have held such observances.

"I'm sure people just felt that if they had an invocation in a commencement in a field house at a college, that it added to the dignity of the ceremony," said Robert Y. Dubel, retiring Baltimore County school superintendent. "People who felt that way will be disappointed, but I really don't think it's a major issue."

Robert B. Pfau, principal of Harford County's Fallston High School, where prayers were part of graduation ceremonies, said it was not clear how the decision might affect other school activities -- such as concerts that include religious music.

"I think it is a mixed message. We have all been anticipating this decision to give us guidelines for the future," Mr. Pfau said.

Percy Williams, a member of the Harford County School Board, called the decision "most unfortunate."

"It takes away from a tradition that is American. Our country was established with basic principles to give individuals the opportunity to make choices, and that includes a religion they can believe in," Mr. Williams said. "Prayer is one of the things that people have a belief in."

Mr. Williams said that most Harford high schools had prayers at graduation. "This is a traditional ceremony that by its very nature is religious," he said. "It's a ceremony that has come down to us through time."

In Anne Arundel County, Chesapeake High School Assistant Principal Roy Skiles said that prayer has been part of graduation ceremonies for as long as he could remember.

"I've been in the county about 20 years," Mr. Skiles said. "Invocations and benedictions have always been part of the ceremony."

Mr. Skiles said that he could not recall any complaints from students or parents. Still, Mr. Skiles said he was not surprised by the Supreme Court's decision.

"We've been following this argument for some time," he said. "I haven't read the opinion and I'm not sure what argument [the court] used, but we expected it. Personally, I'm disappointed in the decision."

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