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Supreme Court won't weigh in on graduation prayer

By The Associated Press

12.10.01

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WASHINGTON — Student-led graduation messages, which opponents call official school prayer in thin disguise, may continue in Jacksonville, Fla., high schools. The Supreme Court said today it would not review a lower court's ruling that found the policy constitutionally sound.

A group of students and parents sued to block the policy in Duval County, which allowed the senior class to choose "chaplains" to give inspirational addresses at graduation. The school district calls the addresses "messages" and notes that they may be entirely secular.

"The clear purpose of the challenged policy is to preserve a tradition of prayer at graduation," opponents led by the consumer and public interest group Public Citizen claimed in asking the high court to step in.

Invocations and benedictions were allowed at Duval County's 15 public school graduations before the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling in Lee v. Weisman that prohibited clergy-led prayers at public school commencements.

In 1993, school officials adopted a new policy letting high school seniors decide whether to choose a fellow student to give a "brief opening and/or closing message" at graduation. The student would decide the message's content with no review by school officials.

A group of students and their parents sued in 1998, saying the policy amounted to a government establishment of religion, barred by the Constitution's First Amendment.

Under the policy, students at some schools have elected a class chaplain to lead invocations and benedictions, or to give messages designated as "reflections" or "inspiration."

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has twice upheld the policy — most recently in response to a Supreme Court order last year.

The high court told the Atlanta-based appeals court to rethink the case in light of the Supreme Court's decision in 2000 in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. In that case, the high court barred student-led prayers over district-owned public address systems at public high school football games. The justices said such prayers give the appearance of school endorsement of religion.

The appeals court majority responded by reiterating its view that the Florida policy is constitutional because students make the choice about what to hear at graduation and prayer is not the only choice they can make.

"Student prayer from the graduation podium ... is more coercive, and more imbued with state endorsement, than prayer at football games," opponents argued to the Supreme Court.

The school board's lawyers have said the policy "neither establishes nor prohibits religious speech. It merely permits graduating senior classes to decide whether or not to include an unrestricted message as part of their ceremonies."

The case is Adler v. Duval County School Board.

Previous

Federal appeals court again upholds graduation prayer
Student statements at high school graduation donít violate Constitution, 11th Circuit finds in second look at Florida case.  05.15.01

Related

2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

High court turns away question: Is prayer at school events constitutional?
Analysis Refusal to hear Florida graduation-prayer case highlights seemingly mixed message sent by justices in last decade.  12.11.01

Colorado teacher loses bid to block graduation prayer
Meanwhile, ACLU plans lawsuit to prevent West Virginia high school from including prayer during commencement.  05.28.02

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