ACLU Warns Schools Over Graduation Prayer


ACLU Warns Schools Over Graduation Prayer;
Sends 15,000 Letters to Counter Misleading Legal Advice

May 5, 1993

NEW YORK -- In a letter distributed nationally to 15,000 public school superintendents, the American Civil Liberties Union has rejected assertions by some in the religious right that recent court decisions allow student-sponsored prayer during official graduation ceremonies.

The letter, which was mailed in the last week, seeks to respond to misleading information circulated by Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice. The Robertson organization has mailed at least two letters to school superintendents around the country arguing that students can vote to allow prayer during graduation ceremonies.

"In his zeal to force all Americans to follow his beliefs, Pat Robertson is seriously distorting the law and sending a dangerous message to the nation's students and educators," said Ira Glasser, ACLU Executive Director.

ACLU affiliates around the country have received numerous complaints about planned prayers during graduation ceremonies from students and their parents. Glasser said the ACLU took the extraordinary step of distributing its letter nationally because of the rising tide of complaints.

Last year, in the closely watched ACLU case of Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court ruled that religious exercises at public school graduation ceremonies violate the Constitution. In a decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court said that holding prayers during a graduation ceremony gives any objecting student "a reasonable perception that she is being forced by the State to pray in a manner her conscience will not allow."

In his letters to school superintendents, Robertson's group ignores the central holding of the Lee decision and instead bases its advice on a case decided by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers only the states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The ACLU believes the case, Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, was wrongly decided; the U.S. Supreme Court has already been asked to review the Fifth Circuit decision.

The ACLU letter, distributed by mail in the last week, says that among other fundamental errors, the Jones decision unconstitutionally permits a student election to decide whether there will be a prayer at graduation and allows school officials to approve the prayer and designate a time for it during the official ceremonies.

"Constitutional rights would be meaningless if they could be overruled by a vote," said Robert S. Peck, legislative counsel in the ACLU's Washington Office. "It is important to understand that when we prohibit government from taking sides in a religious dispute, we are protecting religion from government control."

In its letter and supporting materials, the ACLU made clear that students and their parents can organize prayer ceremonies before or after graduation programs. To meet the Constitution's strict requirements about the separation of church and state, however, the ACLU said that the ceremonies must meet the following conditions to be constitutional:

They must be held off school grounds.

Attendance must be entirely voluntary. School officials cannot assist in the organization of such events or participate in them in their official capacity.

The bottom line, the ACLU said in quoting the Supreme Court, is that when school officials include prayers in graduation, whether or not student-initiated, they violate the Constitution "because the State has in every practical sense compelled attendance and participation in an explicit religious exercise at an event of singular importance to every student."

"Turning down a request from students to designate a time for prayer during graduation does not prevent those who wish to pray from doing so," the ACLU letter concluded. "It merely indicates that they must do it on their own and not use the machinery of government for that purpose, or in a way that imposes their religious desires upon others."

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