Every year as students prepare for graduation the issue of praying as part of the ceremony comes up. Most Americans believe that praying before, during, or after a commencement address violates the Constitution. It doesn’t. But of course the American public can be forgiven for failing to understand their individual rights as set forth in the Constitution. If they went to public school—which most of them did—they probably never read it. Further, they are so accustomed to hearing about the ACLU suing colleges and schools over religious issues that they falsely assume praying at graduation is Constitutionally forbidden.
Not that you would know this from taking a civics class in high school or American Government in college, but the Supreme Court has ruled that prayer during graduation ceremonies is a Constitutionally protected right. What is not allowed is inviting clergy to the ceremony for the purpose of praying (see Lee v. Weisman). Following the Lee decision prohibiting clergy from praying as part of graduation ceremonies, a Federal Appeals Court ruled that “…a majority of students can do what the state acting on its own cannot do to incorporate prayer in public high school graduation ceremonies.” In fact, since the Lee decision, the Court has made it clear that student led prayer is acceptable as long as the students want it.
The key concept to understand concerning the issue of prayer during graduation ceremonies is government speech versus private speech. Schools and colleges cannot require prayers during graduation ceremonies. This, according to the Courts, would constitute a government endorsement of religion, something that is prohibited by the establishment clause of the First Amendment. However, schools and colleges may certainly allow students to say prayers. In fact, they cannot prohibit students from praying at graduation because the prayers of private individuals are protected by the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. In fact, valedictorians, salutatorians, and honorary student speakers may do more than pray. They may give speeches with religious content and read from the Bible.
According to the Supreme Court, school administrators may prohibit speech by students only if it “…materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of a school.” According to Jay Alan Sekulow, author of The Christian The Court and The Constitution, “Where students have been granted freedom to compose their own speeches, or even their own commencement exercise, protected student expression should not be subjected to censorship because of its content. In fact, it is a fundamental proposition of constitutional law that a governmental body may not suppress or exclude the speech of private parties for the sole reason that the speech contains a religious perspective.”
All of this is common knowledge or at least readily available information for any school or college administrator interested in knowing the truth about the law. This being the case, why do school administrators try so hard to discourage prayers or any other kind of religious expression at graduation ceremonies? The answer is simple: fear. School administrators are afraid of the ACLU, they are afraid of the lone Muslim who might be in the audience, they are afraid of secular humanist parents, and, more than anything, they are afraid of offending anyone; anyone that is except Christians. This—offending someone—is the great sin of the 21st century—unless, of course, that someone happens to be a Christian.
School administrators know the ACLU will make waves. They know Muslims will complain or worse. But they assume that Christians will meekly accept being unlawfully discriminated against. Unfortunately, more often than not they are right in their assumption. Few Christians are willing to arm themselves with the truth, stand up to school administrators, and demand their rights, and until Christians are willing to assert themselves the ACLU, secular humanist parents, and weak-kneed school administrators will continue to suppress the invocation of God’s name at graduation ceremonies.