Magazine article The Christian Century

Prayer at Commencement

Magazine article The Christian Century

Prayer at Commencement

Article excerpt

It's graduation season, and school boards, principals and graduates will have to be more careful about what is said and by whom at graduation ceremonies. The Supreme Court ruled last June in Lee v. Weisman that public schools cannot invite a member of the clergy to offer a prayer at a commencement ceremony. According to the court, this widespread practice violates the First Amendment's prohibition against the establishment of religion.

This is not the first time that the court has spoken on the topic. In 1962 the court ruled that the New York Board of Regents violated the establishment clause when they composed a nondenominational prayer for children to recite. It did not matter that the prayer was intended to be "inoffensive." As Justice Hugo Black put it, "It is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as part of a religious program carried on by government." Although no government official composed a prayer in the Lee case, the court thought the principal had gone too far when he selected a rabbi to offer prayer and gave him a pamphlet urging sensitivity to the pluralism of American religious beliefs.

In 1963 the court prohibited the practice of daily devotional readings of the Bible and recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Justice Tom Clark wrote: "When the power, prestige and financial support of the government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain." At the heart of the court's ruling in Lee is the same concern that government not coerce religious belief. Although students were not technically required in the case considered in Lee to attend commencement in order to graduate, the court found that students were nevertheless psychologically coerced to attend a ceremony at which the government had arranged for prayer.

Lee was decided by the narrowest of majorities, and it produced blistering dissents by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. It is still controversial throughout the country. But this decision is now the law of the land, and school officials should not treat it with the contempt that was heaped on the cases mentioned above. …

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