U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano delivers the commencement address at Emory University Monday, May 9, 2011 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Can Students Pray at Graduation Ceremonies?

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano delivers the commencement address at Emory University Monday, May 9, 2011 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Most Americans today erroneously believe that praying before, during, or after a commencement address violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. It doesn’t.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that prayer during graduation ceremonies is a Constitutionally protected right. However, inviting clergy to a graduation ceremony for the purpose of praying (Lee v. Weisman 505 U.S. 577 (1992)) is not protected.  After the Court’s 1992 ruling, which prohibited clergy from praying at graduation ceremonies, a Federal Appeals Court ruled: “…a majority of students can do what the state acting on its own cannot do to incorporate prayer in public high school graduation ceremonies.”

Since 1992, the Supreme Court has made it clear that student-led prayer is acceptable dependent on the students’ choice.

The key concept at issue regarding prayer at graduation ceremonies is government speech versus private speech. Public schools and colleges cannot require prayer during graduation ceremonies. To do so, according to the Court, constitutes a government endorsement of religion, which the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits. However, public schools and colleges may certainly allow students to pray publicly.

Even more so, public schools and colleges cannot prohibit students from praying at graduation ceremonies because the prayers of private individuals are protected by both the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. In fact, valedictorians, salutatorians, and honorary student speakers may do more than pray. They may also present speeches with religious content and read from the Bible.

According to the Supreme Court, school administrators may prohibit speech by students only if it “…materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of a school.” Prohibition of speech and prayer is significantly limited by the First Amendment.

According to Jay Alan Sekulow, author of The Christian, The Court, and The Constitution,

“Where students have been granted freedom to compose their own speeches, or even their own commencement exercise, protected student expression should not be subjected to censorship because of its content.  In fact, it is a fundamental proposition of constitutional law that a governmental body may not suppress or exclude the speech of private parties for the sole reason that the speech contains a religious perspective.”

Understanding a student’s individual right to pray and speak publicly about his/her faith is essential to the protections offered by the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

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Jacob "Jake" Steele

Dr. Jacob Steele is a professor of Political Science and the author of numerous books and articles in this field.

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