Ban on graduation prayers provokes mixed reaction


Wednesday's Supreme Court decision outlawing prayers at public school graduation ceremonies has left many Baltimore-area school officials and clergy disappointed, some of them confused and others not a bit surprised.

But what seems certain is that, while graduating high school students may still have keynote speakers, valedictorians and cap-and-gown pomp, the prayers that had outlasted by 30 years a ban on religion in the classroom will be gone.

The high court's decision in a Rhode Island case struck down the practice of prayer at school exercises -- even if those prayers are written in a supposedly "non-sectarian" way.

Public high schools in Baltimore and in each of the metropolitan counties -- although not every school -- had an opening or closing prayer, an invocation or benediction, at graduations this year.

Next year, as a result of the ruling, "there will be no prayers at graduation," said Margaret-Ann F. Howie, legal director for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "You do not want to give the imprimatur of the public school system to any kind of prayer."

The Supreme Court justices, narrowly divided on the 5-4 decision, refused to use the case as an opportunity to change the 30-year ban on officially sponsored worship in public schools and fashion a new interpretation of the Constitution's ban on "an establishment of religion."

The decision received a mixed response yesterday from school officials and ministers in the metropolitan area -- some surprised that even "neutral" prayers now were forbidden and others perceiving it as further erosion of human values.

Kenneth Lasson, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and an expert in civil liberties, said that even the old ban on school prayer had not stopped the practice.

"Although the law of the land is there is no school prayer . . . in practice that's widely ignored, and there is school prayer and it's widely practiced," he said.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Maryland chapter, said that principals might simply replace public prayers with a moment of silence intended for meditation -- much as they are permitted to do at opening exercises each school day.

Under state law, elementary and secondary school students can be required "to meditate silently for approximately one minute" at opening exercises, according to Valerie V. Cloutier, principal counsel for the state Department of Education. Students and teachers are free to "read the holy Scripture or pray," the law states. But they must do so silently, Ms. Cloutier said.

"The kids can just stand there. There is no oral presentation of any prayer," she said.

Presumably, school officials also would be able to require a moment ofsilence before a graduation ceremony or an assembly, she said.

Ms. Cloutier said that the State Board of Education has issued no guidelines governing prayers or invocations at school events. And she knew of no complaints from parents or others offended by schools that may have held such observances.

"I'm sure people just felt that if they had an invocation in a commencement in a field house at a college, that it added to the dignity of the ceremony," said Robert Y. Dubel, retiring Baltimore County school superintendent. "People who felt that way will be disappointed, but I really don't think it's a major issue."

Robert B. Pfau, principal of Harford County's Fallston High School, where prayers were part of graduation ceremonies, said it was not clear how the decision might affect other school activities -- such as concerts that include religious music.

"I think it is a mixed message. We have all been anticipating this decision to give us guidelines for the future," Mr. Pfau said.

Percy Williams, a member of the Harford County School Board, called the decision "most unfortunate."

"It takes away from a tradition that is American. Our country was established with basic principles to give individuals the opportunity to make choices, and that includes a religion they can believe in," Mr. Williams said. "Prayer is one of the things that people have a belief in."

Mr. Williams said that most Harford high schools had prayers at graduation. "This is a traditional ceremony that by its very nature is religious," he said. "It's a ceremony that has come down to us through time."

In Anne Arundel County, Chesapeake High School Assistant Principal Roy Skiles said that prayer has been part of graduation ceremonies for as long as he could remember.

"I've been in the county about 20 years," Mr. Skiles said. "Invocations and benedictions have always been part of the ceremony."

Mr. Skiles said that he could not recall any complaints from students or parents. Still, Mr. Skiles said he was not surprised by the Supreme Court's decision.

"We've been following this argument for some time," he said. "I haven't read the opinion and I'm not sure what argument [the court] used, but we expected it. Personally, I'm disappointed in the decision."

In Baltimore City, some high schools have had prayers at graduation ceremonies, though the practice is not a citywide policy, said spokesman Nat Harrington.

TC The high court's ruling will require a formal policy to replace the informal guidelines currently used by principals -- guidelines urging them to "avoid student embarrassment" and to take into consideration the religious sensitivities of the school audience, he said.

"Our attorney is now meeting with key administration staffers, including the superintendent and others, to devise a policy that will be distributed as soon as possible," Mr. Harrington said.

Howard County's superintendent, Michael E. Hickey, said the decision would have a "fairly limited" effect. He noted that several of his schools have offered voluntary baccalaureate ceremonies which include invocations -- and in those cases, separate graduation exercises without prayers have also been held.

Many Howard County church leaders said they were disappointed by the high court's decision.

"It's unfortunate," said the Rev. Donald D. Huffmier of Faith Bible Church in Elkridge. "We can teach witchcraft, but we can't pray to God."

Mr. Huffmier predicted that the decision would drive students from public schools.

The minister said 10 to 15 families in his 200-member congregation are interested in Christian home schooling, and "each year there are more turning to it."

William L. Russell, principal of the Faith Bible Church Academy, said that without prayers in public schools, children have no moral guidelines.

"We have no values, nothing to anchor ourselves," said Mr. Russell. "There's not much hope when you take values and morals from kids."

But Pastor Milton E. Williams of New Life Evangelical Baptist Church in Baltimore said he agrees with the ruling.

"Prayer is something that should be done in the home," Mr. Williamssaid. "I don't see the Supreme Court ruling changing the Christian religion in any shape or form."

In Carroll County, the Rev. C. Biddle Foster expressed disappointment in the ruling but wondered "if many church people believe in prayer themselves," with so few of them attending midweek prayer services.

"God is God, and this isn't going to affect Him," said Mr. Foster, pastor of the Kirkridge Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church Manchester.

"Prayer is not a major item of our culture, and in some degree the Supreme Court decision was warranted. If for one instant anyone on the Supreme Court or in the schools believed that the prayers offered actually changed the course of events, everyone would be clamoring for prayer. People don't believe that, so it's become a ceremony."

The Rev. Dale Kidd, associate pastor of the independent Church of the Open Door in Westminster and principal of its Carroll Christian Schools, said, "We think that the secularization of public life is a misconception of what the Constitution was originally designed to do."

Some of Carroll County's high school graduations had class advisers and members read secular passages. Others had prayers that were non-denominational, not necessarily given by clergy.

"I think we have to look at the whole system to make sure we're in compliance with the law -- that's the first thing -- no matter what our personal feelings are," said Carolyn Scott, vice president of the county Board of Education.

"I personally am a practicing Christian," Mrs. Scott said. "There .. are many places where I can pray and many times when I can pray. So if there are times when it would not be legal, I can still maintain my own spirituality."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad