Some plan graduation prayers, but many doubt legality

June 12, 1993|By Aminah Franklin | Aminah Franklin,Staff Writer

Throughout Maryland, many parents, students and religious groups rejoiced this week, saying the Supreme Court had put God back into public school graduations by clearing the way for student-led prayers at the ceremonies.

But civil libertarians and high-ranking state school officials presented a decidedly different view. The high court's refusal to review a lower court ruling in a Texas case, they said, will have no bearing on the ban on prayers at school-sponsored graduations here.

Valerie Cloutier, the state Department of Education's chief attorney, said the high court's ruling last June "expressly forbids" such prayers and that Monday's action has "absolutely no bearing on the state of Maryland."

Warning that local school systems that allow prayer at school-sponsored ceremonies could risk lawsuits, Mrs. Cloutier added, "There is still no legal authority for students in the state to pray at their graduation ceremonies."

Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of Maryland's American Civil Liberties Union, said the ruling applies only to the 5th U.S. Circuit, where the case originated. "Legally," he said, "the Supreme Court did not pass judgment; it simply refused to hear a case so you can't say precedent was set."

Other lower federal courts, the ACLU pointed out, have ruled against student-led religious invocations in a series of lawsuits on the First Amendment question. Maryland, like other states, likely will have to await other possible Supreme Court rulings on cases, including some pending in Virginia, for a definitive answer, Mr. Comstock-Gay said.

But warnings against graduation prayer did little to dissuade religious groups and other supporters of student-led prayer who insist Monday's decision represented a key victory.

While the court's action left many local school officials confused about its meaning, some said they planned to let students vote to decide whether one of their classmates delivers the traditional blessing.

The high court decision could well prompt graduation prayer supporters to wage legal battles against local school boards that attempt to ban such prayers, said Margaret Anne Howie, legal counsel for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

"I can see -- a couple of years or even months down the road -- students suing school boards because they don't permit prayer," Ms. Howie said. "Their line of argument would be that the Supreme Court had the opportunity to overturn the lower court ** decision but didn't, so there must be something in the case that is valid."

In the Texas case, the lower federal court ruled that last year's Supreme Court decision meant only that public school officials could notdirect a formal religious exercise as part of graduations. The lower court said that prayer is allowed if school officials do not make the arrangements but permit students to make the decision and lead the praying.

Colleen Akehurst says she has no doubt how she'd vote. The 17-year-old junior at Bel Air High, where Principal William Ekey said he'll let students decide on graduation prayers, figures she has a pretty good shot at becoming valedictorian next year. That, she says, would be an answer to her prayers, and when delivering her lofty address at graduation, she would certainly give thanks to God.

Until this spring, her doing so would have surprised or alarmed no one.

Now Colleen, who prays at school each morning with about 20 members of a Christian student group, says she's aware that a few words of thanks to God at graduation could put her in the middle of the controversy. But she adds, "I'd be willing to rock the boat a little if it's something a majority of students want and something I believe in so strongly."

In Baltimore County, too, the decision on graduation prayer will be left to students at individual schools, said Richard Bavaria, school system spokesman. "There will be those students who will want to lead religious activities at graduation, those who will want to test the limits of the Supreme Court," he said. "And judging by Monday's decision, as long as a majority of students agree . . . then they will be able do that."

In Carroll County, Peter Olson, a teacher and wrestling coach at South Carroll High School, praised the high court's latest action.

"I'm glad to see not all Supreme Court decisions are antagonistic to religion in general," he added. "This theory of the separation of church and state has gone to the left to the extreme," said Mr. Olson, an adviser to a Christian student prayer group.

Maryland schools, taking their cue from last year's Supreme Court ruling, avoided even the appearance of sponsoring services that include prayer this spring. To replace the traditional invocation or benediction, parents, clergy and students banded together to arrange private ceremonies that include a blessing.

But this week's high court action clouds the issue considerably.

In the words of Edmund O'Meally, legal counsel to the Carroll County school board: "Schools are finding themselves in a tricky area . . . They're walking a tightrope."

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