Federal appeals court again upholds graduation prayer
By The Associated Press
ATLANTA The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has again ruled that public school students in Florida's Duval County may choose a class member to give a prayer or other personal message at high school graduations.
The appeals court on May 11 voted 8-4 that such statements do not violate the constitutional doctrine of church-state separation as long as certain rules are observed.
The appellate court made the same decision in March 2000 in Adler v. Duval County, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered it to take another look in light of the justices' decision last June in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe striking down student-led prayers at football games in Texas.
The appellate court concluded there were some key distinctions between the two cases.
"First, we emphasize that under Duval County's policy, school officials have no power to direct that a message (let alone a religious message) be delivered at graduation ceremonies, or control in any way the content of any message actually to be delivered," wrote Judge Stanley Marcus for the majority.
The policy leaves the contents of the message up to the student selected to deliver it. A graduating class also has the option of deciding not to have such a message or whether such a message is delivered at the opening of graduation, the closing or both.
School officials are forbidden from monitoring or reviewing the statements, which are limited to two minutes maximum.
The Atlanta-based court also rejected the argument that student statements were transformed into state-sponsored speech because they were delivered at a school-sponsored event.
Marcus quoted from last year's opinion: "While schools may make private religious speech their own by endorsing it, schools do not endorse all speech they do not censor."
Ruling the policy unconstitutional, the court continued, would be impossible "without effectively banning all religious speech at school graduations, no matter how private the message or how divorced the message may be from any state review, let alone censorship."
The appellate court's new decision, however, may not be the last one in the case because it could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The dissenting judges cited the high court's ruling in the Texas case, which found that the mere passage of such a policy "has the purpose and perception of governmental establishment of religion."
Invocations and benedictions were allowed in Jacksonville public school graduations until the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Lee v. Weisman prohibiting clergy-led prayers at public school graduations.
In 1993, Duval County school officials adopted a new policy that let high school seniors decide whether to choose a fellow student to give a "brief opening and/or closing message" at graduation.
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