Public schools will soon be hosting graduation ceremonies for their students. In some communities, student speakers may want to express their faith or even offer a prayer from the podium. Is it legal?
Well, that depends on how it is conducted. Our friends at Alliance Defending Freedom offer this advice for school officials:
Graduation ceremonies have slightly different rules [than privately sponsored baccalaureate ceremonies] because a private speaker (the student) is speaking at a government sponsored event. In the graduation context, we think the following parameters prevent any appearance of “state endorsement” of religion:
School staff cannot influence or select the content of the message that the speaker will deliver;
School staff cannot engage in prior review of the speaker’s message;
A school policy allowing a student message or remarks should use neutral terms and avoid using terms such as prayer, invocation, or benediction; and
The message should be non-sectarian and non-proselytizing.
Following these parameters, the Supreme Court’s “objective observer” can easily conclude that a student-initiated invocation/benediction is by student choice - not by the endorsement or coercion of the school. To ensure that an objective observer is not confused, the school can include a disclaimer in the graduation program that informs the audience that views expressed by the students are not those of the school. This comports with the principle of “educat[ing] the audience rather than squelch[ing] the speaker." [Hills, 329 F.3d at 1055]
Acknowledging God in public speeches has a rich history in America. As the Supreme Court has acknowledged:
“Our history is replete with official references to the value and invocation of Divine guidance in deliberations and pronouncements of the Founding Fathers and contemporary leaders.” - Lynch v. Donnelly
When students express gratitude toward God it gives an audience refreshing hope for America's future.
Constitutionality of Prayer at High School Graduation/Baccalaureate (Alliance Defending Freedom)