The constitutionality of prayers at high school graduations is expected to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall, and the Utah attorney general has asked for a "cease-fire" in the prayer war until after the case is heard.
But the Class of 1991 will hold commencement exercises in just a few weeks. And as high schools around the state plan for their graduation ceremonies, they must decide whether they will include prayers or adopt the attorney general's "posture of neutrality."One district, however, has made the decision twice - once seven years ago.
In 1984, the Jordan School District decided to eliminate prayers from all the district's high school graduation programs after the American Civil Liberties Union sent school districts a letter outlining Supreme Court rulings on school prayer.
The district reversed itself the following year. But in 1989, after two students at Brighton High sued the district over the prayer issue, the district board decided again to ban graduation prayers.
It was not a new issue for the district, said district superintendent Raymond Whittenburg. For years, he had heard opinions, both positive and negative, on prayers at school functions. But when the district was sued, its leaders had to take action, he said.
Students and administrators involved with planning graduation ceremonies have adjusted to the decision and have kept students involved with the planning and execution of the ceremonies by substituting poems or inspirational readings.
Only one of the district's high schools, Valley High, has chosen not to include some kind of non-religious substitute for the program slot formerly occupied by a prayer.
Brighton High: At this school, where the issue first was put to the legal test, students wanted to include a prayer in the 1990 ceremony, said assistant principal Robert Burt. But the students have since decided to read the same inspirational poem each year, and thereby establish a tradition.
Bingham High: The class of 1990 heard readings by student council officers, said assistant principal John Worthen. "They were pretty well left up to their own devices other than the fact that we had faculty people listen to them to be sure there was not any religious intonation," Worthen said.
West Jordan High: Inspirational poems - one by a student, and one by a published poet - are part of the ceremony, said assistant principal Norma Villar.
Alta High: The class of 1990 added a song and a speaker to the program. The program also included a hymn, "God of Our Fathers," but it was played in a non-traditional arrangement, Hanvey said, and no one sang the words. There were two complaints about the ceremony - one about a board member's blessing the students and one about the lack of a flag standard on stage - but the rest of the ceremony received compliments, he said.
This year's seniors have asked to include prayer, but were told they couldn't, Hanvey said.
Hillcrest High: "Inspirational thoughts" were on the program last year and will be included this year, said assistant principal Dennis Johnson.