Is graduation prayer a religious or ceremonial practice?

Three players in Utah's graduation prayer issue say that is the question the U.S. Supreme Court must answer when it rules on a Rhode Island case later this year.At the State and Local Government Convention Friday, Janet Graham, solicitor general; Michael Patrick O'Brien, attorney representing the Utah American Civil Liberties Union in a suits against two Utah school districts; and Doug Bates, attorney for the State Board of Education, said the issue will remain controversial until the Supreme Court rules on the case this fall.

"It is our view that the issue is unsettled and will continue that way until the high court speaks on the issue," Graham said.

With urging from Utah and other states, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to help resolve graduation prayer suits around the country.

The ACLU filed suits last year against Alpine and Granite school districts seeking a halt to prayer at graduation exercises. At a hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene agreed to place both cases on hold until the Rhode Island case is heard.

Because the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that prayer and other religious expression in school settings is unconstitutional, Graham said it would likely have to determine graduation prayer ceremonial to rule it constitutional.

"Any time it's viewed as an extension of the classroom it has been found to be unconstitutional," she said.

The court has already ruled prayer unconstitutional at most school activities, school assemblies and athletic events.

Bates said because most Utahns belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he doubts prayer at graduation in Utah is viewed as being anything other than religious.

"I think that surely the people of Utah would find prayer as being more than purely empty speaking," he said.

O'Brien agreed and said he would be surprised if the Supreme Court ruled that graduation prayer is ceremonial rather than religious.

"I would be shocked that someone would say prayer is anything more than an appeal to a diety," he said.

Another factor that the Supreme Court uses to determine the constitutionality of prayer is whether coercion from the state is involved. The argument of some districts, Graham said, is that the state is not involved because students and parents plan graduation exercises. Coercion is eliminated because the prayer takes place in front of family and friends and attending graduation is not mandatory.

All agree it would only confuse the issue if the Supreme Court rules graduation prayer constitutional as long as it is non-denominational or that all religions have an opportunity to offer prayer. With so many religions in existence, administering such conditions would be difficult and would be like creating a new religion, Bates said.

"I don't want our schools to get into that business," he said.

Graham said she hopes the Supreme Court decision will establish guidelines on graduation prayer that are clear and easy for schools to understand.

"That is the most important thing in this battle, that school officials will know what is expected of them," she said.

O'Brien said the issue needs to be resolved because districts fighting the issue are neglecting other educational needs.

"Fighting this issue is taking district officials' attention away from business that's important," O'Brien said.

State education officials are not telling districts how to deal with the issue, Bates said. However, they are asking districts to consider the public's desire and possible litigation costs before endorsing graduation prayer.

"Of course it is their decision and we're not going to make it for them," he said.