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Graduation season provides first real test of fed prayer guidelines

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–New federal guidelines on prayer at public school graduations haven’t stopped complaints from popping up nationwide, including a “bizarre” one in Wisconsin.

Winneconne (Wis.) High School senior Rachel Honer was asked to speak at her high school graduation but chose instead to sing “He’s Always Been Faithful” by contemporary Christian music’s Sara Groves. When the school administration told her to insert personal pronouns for the word “God,” Honer refused and sued.

The school backed down May 29, making way for Honer to sing the unedited version of the song at the June 8 commencement. As part of the compromise, Honer will be listed as a performer, not a speaker.

Rutherford Institute founder John W. Whitehead, whose organization represented Honer, called the case “bizarre.” Making Honer sing the edited song would have violated her constitutionally protected right to free speech, free expression of religion and equal protection under the law, Whitehead said.

“When she speaks, it’s free speech — whether she’s talking about God or whatever,” he told Baptist Press. “… She should be treated like everyone else.”

Whitehead said Honer’s is not the only complaint he has received. This graduation season is particularly noteworthy because it’s the first round of graduations subject to guidelines set forth by the Department of Education. Schools with policies in violation of the guidelines risk losing their federal funding.

The guidelines, released in February and required by the No Child Left Behind Act, outline what types of religious speech are allowed and prohibited in schools under the Constitution. A clause on prayer at graduations is included.

Specifically, the guideline on prayer at graduations states that the school cannot mandate or organize school prayer but must remain neutral. When a speaker is chosen by “evenhanded” criteria, the content of the speech “is not attributable” to the school and cannot be restricted because of its “religious (or anti-religious) content,” the guidelines say.

For example, if the school asks for student volunteers to deliver a one-minute opening statement, and the student who is randomly selected chooses to pray, then, according to the guidelines, his prayer cannot be restricted.

Texas attorney Kelly Coghlan, an expert on prayer in public schools, was consulted by the Department of Education during the guidelines’ crafting.

“It makes very clear that schools are not to be religious-free zones, that school officials are not prayer police and that students of faith are not enemies of the faith,” he told Baptist Press.

Neutrality is the key, Coghlan said. High-profile cases that have gone against prayer in schools have occurred because the courts said the schools favored prayer, he said, noting that the guidelines walk a fine line to meet constitutional requirements.

The guidelines mention two Supreme Court cases often referred to by activist groups.

In 2000 the Supreme Court struck down a Texas school policy that had allowed pre-game prayers at football games. In 1992 the high court struck down a similar high school policy of inviting a member of the clergy to deliver a graduation prayer.

The rulings show that “public school officials may not themselves decide that prayer should be included in school-sponsored events,” the guidelines state.

Coghlan, who is a member of Second Baptist Church in Houston, noted that the guidelines allow schools to give a “neutral disclaimer” saying that the speaker’s views are those of the speaker and not the school. In the example of the randomly chosen student, a school could print a disclaimer in the graduation program or simply make a brief statement before the prayer.

The disclaimer “provides some protection for the school against somebody who would complain and say, ‘I think the school made that student say that.’ It makes a lot of sense and I think every school should do that,” Coghlan said.

Using the guidelines, Coghlan has put together a three-page policy schools can use as a how-to guide. For instance, it specifically states that vulgar and obscene language cannot be part of a student’s speech or prayer. So far, he said, a handful of schools have adopted his guide. It is available on his website, www.schoolprayer.net.

The Wisconsin case violates at least the spirit of the Department of Education guidelines, the Rutherford Institute’s Whitehead said. Coghlan called it an outright violation.

The guidelines are necessary and useful for those schools which are unsure what is and is not unconstitutional, both men said.

Many schools “don’t know the law,” Whitehead said, adding there is speculation that the guidelines may be challenged in court. “Most school officials just want to have order,” he said, “and they want to get along and do their job.”

Coghlan said that schools sometime take legal advice that is driven by the “liberal or conservative philosophy of the particular attorney.”

The federal guidelines attempt to avoid legal ambiguity by putting “everybody on the same page,” he said.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust