Graduation prayer issue returns

March 20, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun Sun staff writer Anne Haddad contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- It is just about spring, and high school seniors are beginning to count the days until graduation. For constitutional lawyers, that countdown is moving toward the annual ritual of fighting over prayers at the students' commencement exercises.

At the Supreme Court, the justices are close to taking center stage themselves once more on the issue. They could have something to say as early as today.

The controversy over prayers in public schools, at any time of the year in any school setting, is never far from the court's docket. But prayer at graduation ceremonies has been one of the more heated points of dispute in recent years, and a new case on it is ready for the court. The question: If it is unconstitutional for school officials to arrange for prayer at graduation, may students themselves do so?

Three years after the court's major decision banning many but perhaps not all graduation prayers, the issue still roils high schools. No one can be sure just what is or is not allowed, at least until the court acts anew.

In Maryland, where the state attorney general officially frowns on all student prayers at public school graduations, some students -- as in Westminster -- have been holding separate religious services at commencement rather than fighting over religious expressions at school-sponsored ceremonies.

The justices' first step on the issue is due soon in a case from Idaho: They will decide whether to review the entire question of graduation prayer again. Because lower courts have been divided over it, the chances seem stronger that the court will agree to provide new constitutional guidance.

In Grangeville, Idaho, where the case began, School Superintendent Al Arnzen has a meeting with his board of trustees this afternoon, and hopes the court has acted by then so he can tell them something. "This year, we haven't done anything yet; we've been kind of waiting to see what's going to happen."

For the time being, he said, he is inclined to leave matters as they have stood for years: The students will decide, without interference from school officials, whether to include prayers in their commencement exercises at school -- even though that very practice in Grangeville was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court in November.

At Grangeville High School, the largest of three high schools in the school district in rural western Idaho, graduation for this year's 79 seniors is set for June 2.

Grangeville High is one of two high schools in the nation whose experiences with student-run graduation exercises, with prayers or other forms of religious devotion included, have been ruled upon directly in federal appeals courts -- the last stage before the Supreme Court.

The other is Clear Lake High School in Clear Lake City, Texas, a suburb of Houston, where this year's class of 615 seniors will decide on prayers at graduation ceremonies set for May 27. The seniors there will be free to choose prayers, hymns or other religious expression, because a different federal appeals court has upheld that approach for Clear Lake High.

Conflicting situations

The conflicting situations in the two communities, and the constitutional disagreement they reflect, is troubling to many school boards.

The National School Boards Association told the Supreme Court in the Idaho case: "A religious war is being fought in the public schools in this country" over prayer at school events, with both sides "using the public schools and public school children as tools to argue their respective sides of this issue. School boards are caught in the middle and do not know which way to turn."

As happens every year at this time, the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal advocacy group that supports graduation prayers, has received requests

from students for advice -- "well over 100" already this year, according to the ACLJ's chief counsel, Jay Alan Sekulow of Atlanta. Early next month, his group will mail nationwide a sheet of advice on the subject.

ACLU position

His counterpart at the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, legal director Stephen R. Shapiro, said that in "many places around the country, there is great agitation about this issue -- and confusion. My own view is that the [constitutional] rules aren't that clear."

But the ACLU's position is clear: Prayers of all kinds, even organized group prayers said silently, should not be allowed in public school ceremonies.

Mr. Shapiro's group also expects to mail out a packet of advice to schools this spring.

Those two groups, two of the main adversaries warring over school prayer, will be lobbying school officials on the issue when the National School Boards Association meets next month in San Francisco.

For now, both groups, along with the National School Boards Association and school officials in many communities, await the Supreme Court's reaction to the latest case.

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