The Rev. Robert Hinckley will take the podium at a high school graduation ceremony next month as countless clergymen have done before him, but with one difference.
Hinckley has been asked not to mention God in his inspirational message to graduates of Abington High. A federal appeals court ruled last July that graduations should not begin or end with a prayer.Abington Superintendent Chester Millett said he and many others in the suburban Boston town would like to have a graduation prayer but will follow the court's direction.
C.J. Doyle, Massachusetts executive director of the Catholic League, is not so accepting.
"This is extreme, this is gratuitous, this is probably unconstitutional, and it's certainly offensive to the religious sensibilities of the great majority of Americans," Doyle said.
Graduation prayers are "a tradition and a custom in our society that should not be so callously and capriciously discarded," he said.
The Massachusetts Department of Education is advising public schools not to allow prayers at their commencement ceremonies based on the ruling that the practice violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
"I'm sure many people will view it as a loss, but it's the law," said Northampton, Mass., schools Superintendent Karen Conklin. "It's a symptom of the fact that diversity is on everybody's mind. We have to respect the fact that we're not a homogeneous society."
The appeals court ruling, the result of a case brought by the father of a Providence, R.I., student, affects schools in areas under the 1st Circuit's jurisdiction: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Puerto Rico. For most schools in those areas, this is the first commencement season that the ban is in effect.
The Rhode Island case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court has agreed to consider it. A ruling is expected next year.
Until the Supreme Court decides the issue, the question of whether graduation prayers are considered in violation of the federal constitution will vary from state to state.
Federal courts have barred graduation prayers in Iowa, but allowed them in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Just last week, California's state Supreme Court barred graduation prayers in that 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," said California Supreme Court Justice Joyce Kennard.
Mike Long, attorney for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, considers the "safe course" for schools to take a year off and wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide.
"It's a tough position for school officials to be in, but it's never a wise policy to disobey what appears to be a fairly clear statement from a court of record," he said.
Some school systems plan creative alternatives to graduation prayers.
Three clergy will be invited to sit on the dais at the Quincy (Mass.) High School graduation, but not to speak. At Monadnock Regional High School in Keene, N.H., and Charles City (Iowa) High School, school buildings will be "loaned" to local clergy for a baccalaureate service, a spiritual service for graduating seniors, separate from commencement.
"I try to look at it from the point of view that schools should be serving the needs of their communities," said Dan Stockwell, principal of Monadnock High. "Unfortunately we have different viewpoints as to what those needs are."
Officials at Keene State College in New Hampshire decided to move their graduation-eve baccalaureate service off campus and drop prayers from the graduation ceremony itself this spring.