Court Decision Not to Take Case Brings Prayer Back to Graduations

Public schools across the country have interpreted the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month not to review a school prayer case as a “green light” to again permit prayers at graduation ceremonies.

To the dismay of Jewish groups that believe in maintaining strict separation between church and state, school districts around the country have begun issuing new guidelines allowing student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies.

Their moves come in the wake of a June 7 decision by the high court not to hear a Texas case called Jones vs. Clear Creek Independent School District.

In declining to review the case, the justices let stand a lower court decision affirming the district’s constitutional right to allow students to recite prayers during graduation ceremonies.

But because the high court did not rule on the case itself, its decision sets no precedent and is only binding on schools under the lower court’s jurisdiction.

Many public schools had stopped allowing prayers of any kind at their commencement exercises after the high court ruled last year that a rabbinic invocation at one such ceremony in Rhode Island was a violation of the First Amendment clause barring government establishment of religion.

But in the aftermath of the June 7 decision, many now feel free to do so, as long as the prayers are initiated and led by students, rather than clergy.

Here in Washington, for example, the superintendent of public schools, Franklin Smith, issued a June 14 memorandum setting forth specific procedures to be followed before prayer is approved, including a majority vote by the graduating senior class.

The American Jewish Committee promptly sent a letter to Smith arguing that “allowing student-led prayers as part of graduation ceremonies at public schools constitutes a dangerous entanglement between religion and government and thus violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

According to Jeffrey Weintraub, AJCommittee’s Washington area director, having the senior class vote on prayer violates “the whole principle of protecting minority groups from majority coercion.”

Weintraub and others in the Jewish community are urging school districts not to allow such prayers until the Supreme Court settles this issue once and for all.

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