The annual spring debate - to pray or not to pray at high school graduations - is heating up, with some schools opting for prayers, some banning them and many still in the process of deciding.

Current lawsuits challenging graduations have lent weight to the debate. The Utah Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suits last year against Granite and Alpine districts for allowing student prayers during graduation rites.Both the ACLU and the school districts are awaiting the outcome of a request by a Providence, R.I., school district to have the U.S. Supreme Court decide the question. The high court is to decide within the next week or so whether it will look at the issue. Utah and several other states have filed "friend of the court" briefs asking that the court decide the issue. Utah contributed $10,000 to the Rhode Island school district to help get the matter before the high court.

Meanwhile, the ACLU is watching Utah high schools to determine if it should file additional suits.

"It partly depends on what happens (with the Supreme Court)," Utah ACLU Executive Director Michele Parish said. "If the court decides to rule in the case, it may be all over this March. That would be the quickest, least expensive thing that could happen."

However, she warned, "It should be obvious to districts by now that we're serious about the issue of school prayers. Districts that persist (in allowing prayers) put themselves at risk of litigation." School districts are foolish to invite expensive lawsuits when the needs of education are so great, she said.

On March 29, representatives of the ACLU, Granite and Alpine are to appear before U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Green to present arguments regarding Utah's participation in the Supreme Court case.

The ACLU already has said that schools in Weber and Davis districts could be added to the litigation list if they carry through with plans for prayers.

Davis had expected a legal decision by this year's graduation. Without one, the district will continue its policy of the past few years - letting individual schools decide whether to include prayer at graduation ceremonies, district spokeswoman Sandra Wilkins said.

Graduation prayers are scheduled at Layton and Clearfield high schools.

Layton students of different denominations offer a prayer or "thought" at graduation, and 1991 will be no exception unless the school is directed to act differently by district officials, Principal Paul Smith said.

Last year, Clearfield did not have a graduation prayer, but the students want one this spring, said Corrine Chandler, senior class adviser.

In a survey last fall, the majority of Clearfield students - 51 percent - said they want a graduation prayer, 20 percent said they wanted a moment of silence, while 10 percent said they didn't want a graduation prayer.

Bountiful, Davis, Viewmont and Woods Cross high schools have not set graduation programs yet, although all have student committees and advisers working on them. They have had graduation prayers in the past.

Viewmont, for example, has included one prayer or thought in graduation exercises for years. "I don't know what the students will do (this year), but my assumption is that they won't deviate from what's been done in the past. It's steeped in tradition," Principal Paul Waite said.

Before the Woods Cross seniors finalize plans, Principal Mike Jarman plans to discuss the prayer issue with them. "As principal I want to give them some insight into the court cases in progress, the Bill of Rights and issues surrounding graduation prayer," he said.

Granite and Alpine districts officials argue that school prayer is a free-speech issue.

Both school districts will allow prayers if that is the choice of students preparing graduation exercises.

"Our schools will get no direction from the district," Granite spokeswoman Joan Palmer said.

Alpine spokesman Michael Robinson said, "Just as we've always done, if students in individual schools wish to have prayer, then they'll have it. Why should we change?"

Provo and Nebo districts in Utah County have not decided on how they will handle the prayer question this spring.

Salt Lake City School District does not have a district policy on graduation prayers, but East, West and Highland students have not offered prayers at their graduations for years, Associate Superintendent Mary Jean Johnson said.

Both Jordan and Washington districts, which have been sued in the past, have directed high schools not to have prayers. Jordan faced litigation several years ago when two Brighton High School students sued over prayers offered for graduation. The district, rather than face the expense of a suit, adopted a no-prayer policy, said Patti Dahl, district public relations director.

Washington District also adopted a policy to resolve a suit brought by local residents who want to preserve prayers at school.

Both districts are hoping for clarification from the Supreme Court on the issue.


(Additional information)

School district prayer policies

School districts policies on prayers at high school graduations.

Alpine: Will let schools decide.

Provo: No policy yet.

Nebo: No policy yet.

Davis: Allows schools to decide.

Layton and Clearfield will have prayers this year. Bountiful, Davis, Viewmont and Woods Cross have not announced graduation programs.

Granite: Will give schools no specific direction and let them decide.

Salt Lake: Has no policy on prayers. East, West and Highland have not had prayers for years.

Jordan: Allows no prayers.

Washington: Allows no prayers.

Weber: Allows prayers.