Two apparent spur-of-the-moment prayers offered at separate graduation rites do not violate the U.S. Supreme Court ban on prayers at public school commencement exercises, a state education official said Friday
"If the prayers are truly spontaneous, then there isn't a problem," said Carol Lear, an attorney for the State Office of Education. "What the court was worried about is if the prayers are orchestrated by the state."Prayers offered by student speakers at Timpview and Orem high schools were not announced in the printed programs. Graduation ceremonies for schools in the Alpine, Provo and Nebo school districts started last week.
On May 22, outgoing Timpview senior Ginny McKinney offered the prayer at the beginning of the ceremony for 518 graduation candidates. Principal Randall Merrill said the prayer was "initiated by the student officers."
In his valedictorian speech, Paul A. Wright cited McKinney's prayer as an example of tearing down barriers. "I'm grateful to those who help tear down walls," he said.
Joseph Cooper surprised nearly everyone at Orem High School's graduation Friday with a spontaneous prayer during the middle of his speech, in which he acknowledged the contributions made by parents of the graduates.
"This is to fulfill a promise I made a long time ago," Cooper said. "Gentlemen, please remove your caps."
Cooper then bowed his head and delivered a prayer that seemed to stun the 520 graduates and their families, as well as Alpine School District Superintendent Steven C. Baugh and three other district officials sitting directly behind the podium. None made an effort to stop him.
Cooper's prayer, which was addressed to "Heavenly Father," lasted a few minutes.
School prayer became a hot-button topic in 1990 when Granite and Alpine school districts were sued by the Utah Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for permitting prayers by students at graduation ceremonies.
The Alpine district alone paid some $150,000 in legal fees before the lawsuit was dismissed.
In addition, members of the school board voted in 1992 to approve a policy banning prayers at graduation ceremonies.
Baugh did not immediately return Deseret News phone calls for comment Friday.
Currently, Lear said, there is no definitive law on student-initiated prayer at graduation because the high court has not addressed some cases in appellate courts involving graduation prayers.
But, Lear said, the Utah Attorney General's Office and the state school superintendent have made it clear that state funds would not be used to defend the practice of state-sponsored prayers at graduations.
"The truth is, if it is the student's own feelings and decision, then it's legal. It would give us pause if it was blatant and we started to get a lot of calls. Then we'd call the district," she said.
"But we wouldn't make it a practice of policing the graduations,"
A pending amendment to the Religious Freedom Act is in response to a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that said a rabbi's prayer at a high school graduation was unconstitutional. The amendment, which would allow prayers at graduation rites, is sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A recent Deseret News poll also showed 77 percent of Utahns either strongly or somewhat agree that prayers should be permitted during high school graduation ceremonies.
But 66 percent of those surveyed say it's either somewhat or very unlikely that such an amendment will be approved by Congress and ratified by the states.
Deseret News staff writers Ed Carter and Rodger Hardy contributed to this report.