The Greenville County School District in South Carolina has been given a strict set of nine “guidelines” in the form of a federal court order outlining what it can and cannot allow or do with regard to prayers at its various schools’ graduation ceremonies.
Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks, a President Obama appointee, has for several years overseen a case filed by the American Humanist Association in 2013 against the school district over complaints that its graduation prayer policy violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against the “establishment of religion.” The school district early on admitted that it perhaps had insinuated itself into a graduation practice that, constitutionally, must be student-initiated and student-led. It revised its policy, and now the court has taken a more current look at how it is working out in practice. The judge found that while on paper the policy is constitutional, in practice school officials have still been getting too involved.
These nine “guidelines,” the first four of which we examine today, have shown up in other federal court decisions over the years, so they are not all the creative results of this one federal judge. Some are useful, some are problematic. But they are all instructive of how federal courts deal with the constitutional issues surrounding graduation prayers.
Here is the language from the court order, followed by my own commentary on each:
1a. The district shall not include a prayer—whether referred to as a prayer, blessing, invocation, benediction, inspiration reading, or otherwise—as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony.
- Comment: In a public school context, this follows Supreme Court precedent going back to 1962. By “official program” the court is referring to the paper or website document listing the order of the graduation ceremony. It doesn’t mean that all prayer is prohibited. More on this below.
1b. The district also shall not include an obviously religious piece of music as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony.
- Comment: What is meant by “an obviously religious piece of music?” The court doesn’t define it because it can’t. It’s too vague. Is the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” an obviously religious piece of music, even though it’s performed by secular orchestras all the time? What about Lauren Daigle’s song, “You Say,” which mentions “God” just once? Is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” religious? I know many Christians who would disagree with that assertion.
- The district and/or school officials shall not encourage, promote, advance, endorse, or participate in causing prayers during any graduation ceremony.
- Comment: A little overkill here. What if a student, chosen to give a graduation speech, comes to the principal with a question: “Can I include a prayer in my speech?” Can the principal even answer the student under this policy? Perhaps a “yes” answer would pass muster, but maybe not. Again, very broad language does not make for a good result under First Amendment law. I think you can safely thank the Supreme Court for this onerous requirement.
- If any students are selected to make remarks during a graduation ceremony, such students shall be selected (a) based on criteria that are neutral towards religion and (b) in compliance with a written policy.
- Comment: Unless the school includes in its policy something like “only religious students can speak” – which would never happen – this requirement is just so much micro-management on the part of the court. Worse, it invites lawsuits over “implied” criteria every time a speaker turns out to be the president of the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes club, or sings in his church’s choir.
- The district and/or school officials shall not provide copies of student remarks from any prior year’s graduation ceremony to any students selected to make remarks during an upcoming graduation ceremony.
- Comment: This requirement probably comes from a suspicion that giving graduation speakers copies of previous speeches that included prayer might be “promoting” prayer? Doesn’t this seem a little bit excessive?
Tomorrow, we will look at guidelines five through nine of the judge’s order.