The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether allowing prayers at school graduation ceremonies is constitutional.
It accepted a case from Rhode Island - where lower courts ruled such prayers should be banned as violating separation of church and state. Utah and four other states had urged the court to hear it to settle cases they also face from both critics and supporters of graduation prayer.The Bush administration and the National Association of State Boards of Education also asked the court to overturn the lower court decisions. They even quoted research from a Brigham Young University professor contending graduation ceremonies are inherently and traditionally religious and are based on ancient church rites.
The issue of whether prayers should be allowed at graduations erupted in Utah last fall with numerous lawsuits - some seeking to ban prayers and others seeking to force school districts to allow them, which caught school officials in the middle.
The American Civil Liberties Union still has suits pending against Alpine and Granite school districts seeking to ban graduation prayers.
The Washington County School District settled a suit last year by a group seeking to allow prayers. It maintained a prayer ban but allowed religious expressions at public events. Another group has similarly sued the Utah State School Board in hopes of forcing permission of prayers.
Because of such conflicts, the Utah attorney general's office filed a friend-of-the-court brief joined by Idaho, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wyoming urging the court to hear the case. The Utah State Board of Education also sent Rhode Island $10,000 to defray the costs of its appeal in the case known as Lee v. Weisman.
Utah's brief said, "State agencies and school officials are trapped in the middle of this dispute, not wishing to tread on First Amendment rights, but finding insufficient guidance in the conflicting and confusing case law."
It added that if the court did not accept the case and give clear guidelines on graduation prayer, "local school districts will be forced to spend considerable amounts of time, energy and scarce taxpayers' dollars defending themselves on all fronts, regardless of which position they take in the public school graduation prayer conflict."
The Rhode Island case began when Deborah Weisman was about to graduate from Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, R.I., in 1989. Her father, Daniel, filed suit four days before seeking to prevent a prayer at the ceremony.
The court refused to ban the prayer on such short notice. The prayer was later offered by Jewish Rabbi Leslie Gutterman, who addressed God at the beginning of two prayers and ended them by saying, simply, amen.
Weisman then pursued his suit to prevent future prayers. A federal district court ruled that the prayers were unconstitutional simply because they referred to diety - and that Gutterman's words in the prayer would have been acceptable as an "inspirational speech" at the event if they had not addressed God.
The 1st District Federal Court of Appeals simply endorsed the lower court decision and did not elaborate further.
Attorneys for the Providence school board contended in briefs that such prayers given once a year before students where parents are present do not coerce students into religious beliefs. It added such prayers at ceremonies date back to the first recorded graduations in the United States.
They also contended that if the lower court rulings stand, "then a staggering variety of ceremonial and familiar practices in our public life must be censored to exclude forbidden references to the deity."
Attorneys for Weisman contended the Supreme Court should not review the case because the lower court rulings comport "with the established precedent and raise no novel or unsettled questions of law."
Salt Lake attorneys John and Douglas Bates, in a brief they filed for the National Association of State Boards of Education, also provided an interesting argument that prayers should be allowed because graduation ceremonies came from religious beginnings and even imitate clerical robes.
Their brief quoted a commencement speech by Hugh Nibley, a Brigham Young BYU professor of ancient studies, saying, "These robes originally denoted those who had taken clerical orders, and a college was a `mystery' with all the rites, secrets, oaths, degrees, tests, feasts and solemnities that go with initiation into higher knowledge."
Nibley's speech also traced the origin of the robes, and to some extent the ceremonies, back through the early Christian church to the Roman empire and beyond.