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High Court Lifts Ban On Student-Led Prayers

Tue., June 27, 1995

Three years ago, a divided Supreme Court barred public schools from sponsoring prayers at graduation ceremonies - leaving school officials and parents wondering whether graduates could lead their own prayers.

In a Grangeville, Idaho, case, the Supreme Court Monday dissolved a ban on student-led prayer in nine Western states. But because it didn’t deal with the merits of the dispute, it did nothing to dispel the confusion over whether student-directed prayer violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

“I’d like to know myself the nuances of that decision,” said Ken Burchell, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene School Board.

Coeur d’Alene school officials haven’t had a specific policy on prayer, but have abided by court decisions, said Superintendent Doug Cresswell. Prayers have not been held at graduations in recent years.

“It’s in questionable taste when any religious group, whether they’re in the majority or not, imposes their views on the rest of the community,” Burchell said.

Grangeville public school officials left it entirely up to the high school seniors to decide whether to have a graduation ceremony, who should speak, what music to play, and whether to include an invocation or benediction.

Under the hands-off school policy, one principal said, officials would not interfere if a senior class voted to “have the whole thing be a religious service.”

In 1991, Phyllis Wright Harris, whose three children attended Grangeville schools at the time, filed suit.

Her daughter Beverly objected to the Christian prayers at her graduation ceremonies that invoked Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Lord, saying she “felt as if I am being pressured to conform, and to accept someone else’s version of what is an acceptable religious belief.”

Harris lost in a federal trial court but won a short-lived victory last year from a U.S. appeals court in San Francisco.

“We cannot allow the (seniors) to make decisions that the school district cannot make,” wrote circuit Judge Charles E. Wiggins, a former Republican congressman.

If a school board were permitted to let students decide to pray at graduation, it “could allow students to vote daily prayers and the Ten Commandments back into their classrooms,” Wiggins reasoned.

His ban on student-led prayers took effect in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

It ruled that prayers were barred only when the government controls the decision-making process. The Supreme Court declined to hear that case, allowing student-led graduation prayers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.The National School Boards As sociation urged the justices to review the Idaho case, observing that school boards throughout the nation are “caught in the middle” of warfare over graduation prayers and “do not know which way to turn.”

On Monday, the Supreme Court nullified Wiggins’ opinion and ordered the case dismissed as moot, presumably because Harris no longer has any children in Grangeville High School. Her son, Samuel, graduated June 2 in a ceremony that included no prayers.

Nevertheless, backers of school prayer triumphantly hailed the dismissal.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, general secretary of the National Clergy Council, called it “an answer in itself to millions of prayers.”

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the dismissal “irresponsible and shortsighted.”

But, he added, “all it means is that new challenges to graduation prayer will have to be filed.”

Indeed, other graduation-prayer cases could arrive in time for Supreme Court action in its 1995-96 term, which will begin Oct. 3.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Knight-Ridder Staff writer Susan Drumheller contributed to this report.

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