A divided state Supreme Court ruled that prayers at public high school graduation ceremonies violate separation of church and state.
"When a school district opens or closes the graduation ceremony with a prayer, it sends a powerful message that it approves of the prayer's religious content," Justice Joyce Kennard wrote Monday.The vote was 5-2 to ban the widespread practice of opening graduation ceremonies with a religious invocation and closing them with a benediction.
Two members of the majority, Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas and Justice Armand Arabian, described their votes as reluctant and invited the U.S. Supreme Court to rule differently in a similar, pending case from Rhode Island. The state of Utah is a party in the Rhode Island case.
In a dissent, Justice Edward Panelli said graduation prayers are a valid "accommodation of religious beliefs" comparable to the printing of "In God We Trust" on coins.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that state-mandated classroom prayer is unconstitutional, it and other federal and state courts have wrestled with the involvement of government-funded institutions in religious activities.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld graduation prayers in 1987; the 11th Circuit barred religious invocations before high school football games in 1989.
U.S. District Courts have upheld graduation prayers in Virginia and Pennsylvania and barred them in Iowa and Rhode Island. The 1990 ruling from Rhode Island is before the nation's high court.
An Oregon appeals court in 1986 ruled against such prayers.
On Monday, three of the five justices in the majority agreed that commencement prayers violate both the state and U.S. constitutions.