Justice In Chillicothe: School Officials Cancel Clergy Prayers At Graduation

A few weeks ago, I mentioned a graduating senior who asked his Ohio high school to change its policy of beginning and ending commencement with Christian prayers.

Thanks to Jacob Davis' courage in publicly opposing this policy, the Chillicothe school has finally agreed to abide by the Constitution -- for the most part.

Public school officials allowed clergy to deliver an invocation and a benediction at graduation ceremonies, but after listening to complaints from Davis, as well as receiving a letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Southeastern Local School District has taken a step in the right direction in stopping this practice, though it came with some reluctance.

"I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want prayer," Superintendent Brian Justice told a local TV station. "The fact that we had prayer for 16 years and it's against the law, not knowingly doing it, but at the same time I don't think it hurt anybody. I think prayer is good."

What the superintendent doesn't seem to understand is that students have a wide variety of different viewpoints about prayer, and the government shouldn't try to pick one and impose it on everyone.

Back in April, Davis, a Wiccan, wrote a letter to the editor of the Chillicothe Gazette, in which he explained why this unconstitutional practice would "taint" his high school graduation experience.

"I hold no animosities toward Christians; in fact, most of my best friends are followers of Christ," he wrote. "I feel that during graduation ceremonies when the entire crowd is asked to stand and join in prayer, if I remain seated I will be ridiculed for not standing and showing respect for someone else's religion. I feel at the same time that if I do stand, then I am submitting to and accepting something that goes against what I believe."

Americans United sent a letter to the school district, advising that school-sponsored prayer at graduation is unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court banned prayers at graduation in Lee v. Weisman, which was decided 17 years ago (around the time Davis' school started the graduation prayer practice).

The high court said, "[E]veryone knows that in our society and in our culture high school graduation is one of life's most significant occasions.... [T]he Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student as a price of attending her own high school graduation."

Though we commend this school for finally getting on board with our country's laws, we have to admit that we are still concerned about a new policy it plans to initiate in place of the old.

In the NBC 4 report, Justice said that instead of the clergy-delivered prayers, one or two students will be selected to give opening and closing remarks, leaving open the possibility that a student could still lead a prayer.

Justice said, "If a student breaks out into prayer, it's not because it's directed from this school."

We would hope not.

Voluntary prayer is perfectly fine, but not from the stage at a high school graduation in front of a captive audience.

If school officials select student speakers with the expectation that students will give a prayer, or if the officials directly or subtly encourage the students to give a prayer, the officials will still be unconstitutionally forcing a prayer on the entire student body.

And even if a student selected through neutral criteria gives a prayer without encouragement from the school, the constitutional rights of students and family members not to be subjected to religion at an official public-school event will still be violated.

That's why Superintendent Justice has the duty to instruct students not to include prayer as part of the official commencement ceremony and to make sure that the planned student remarks don't exclude anyone on the basis of religious belief.