More baccalaureates are going private Graduates get blessing, despite Supreme Court prayer ban


A year after the Supreme Court banned prayer at public school graduation ceremonies, many students will still be receiving the traditional blessing as they leave high school this spring.

In school districts throughout Maryland, graduating seniors will have the chance to attend privately sponsored baccalaureates, ceremonies typically including prayers, hymns and other religious trappings.

For generations, most public high schools in Baltimore and surrounding counties had an opening or closing prayer at graduations. But the prayers that outlasted by 30 years a ban on school-mandated prayer in the classroom can no longer be sponsored by schools themselves because of the Supreme Court ruling.

The decision on the highly charged First Amendment question, banning a tradition as familiar as "Pomp and Circumstance," still evokes emotion. Supporters of the high court's decision call it an overdue affirmation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on "an establishment of religion." Others say they believe the court overstepped its bounds by forbidding blessings or any hint of religion at school-sponsored graduation ceremonies.

As this year's graduations approach, parents, clergy and students have banded together to preserve prayer by arranging private ceremonies for thousands of graduating seniors across the state, paying from a few dollars to around $800. Most ceremonies will be at schools or in nearby churches.

"No government is strong enough to abolish prayer; they just can't do it," said the Rev. Larry Steen, pastor of Westminster Baptist Church. Mr. Steen and other members of the Westminster Ministerium, an association of about 50 Carroll County churches, have organized a countywide baccalaureate, a nondenominational Christian service.

Leigh Ann Reger, an 18-year-old senior at South Carroll High, wouldn't miss it. She respects others' right to refrain from joining in prayers, she said, but added that the court's ruling seems to discourage prayer and even makes her feel a bit uncomfortable praying, say, before performing in a school play.

"Freedom of religion is a constitutional right," she said. "I know the decision doesn't forbid me to pray, but if I can't pray anymore officially in school or at graduation, it makes me feel like I can't do it privately anymore either."

Similar sentiments could be heard in Havre de Grace, the historic Harford County town on the Chesapeake. "I understand the historical perspective of the ruling, but I think the Supreme Court went a bit too far," said the Rev. James L. Burcham, pastor of the town's First Baptist Church. "Allowing prayer does not mean that the school is promoting a religion."

Mr. Burcham has joined other Havre de Grace ministers in sponsoring a religious service for Havre de Grace High students -- "everyone from Roman Catholics to the Salvation Army."

Baccalaureate ceremonies are also planned in other counties, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard, as well as Baltimore City.

Guidelines suggested

Margaret Ann Howie, legal counsel for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said the group sent all local school boards in the state informal suggested guidelines on how the boards might explain the effect of the high court's ruling.

The guidelines note that the "board cannot permit members of the clergy, or individuals whose primary affiliation is religious, to lead prayers at official graduation ceremonies" but adds: "The board cannot and does not prohibit private organizations from sponsoring voluntary religious services."

Privately sponsored baccalaureate services are an appropriate, legal "opportunity for groups to celebrate religion in their own way -- not be bound by any school restrictions," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Calling for a "moment of silence" for reflection, he said, is an appropriate substitute for the traditional invocations and benedictions. But, he warned, calling for a moment of silence so "everyone can say a prayer" is unconstitutional.

The high court ruling

The high court's 5-4 decision, striking down the practice of prayer at school exercises even if those prayers are written in a "nonsectarian" way, came in a Rhode Island case in which a father challenged a nondenominational benediction at his daughter's graduation.

Thus far, Mr. Comstock-Gay said, his office has received no complaints about possible Maryland violations.

A few school officials shared civil libertarians' view of the ban.

Said William Wentworth, principal of North County High in Anne Arundel: "Last time I checked, we do still live in the United States of America, and when the Supreme Court says, 'No prayer,' then there will be no prayer."

Dunbar principal regrets ban

By contrast, Charlotte Brown, principal of Dunbar High in Baltimore City, called prayer an important part of the graduation ceremony and said she regrets the ban.

"Prayer is always needed and definitely at graduation," she said. "Students are leaving a sheltered environment and going into the world on their own. Prayer will certainly help them along. But I guess we have to respect the wishes of others."

Instead of the traditional prayer at the graduation ceremony, many Dunbar students, like those at some other city schools, will attend a private service at a church.

What others are doing

At Glenelg High in Howard County, Trish A. Slater, senior class president, who helped arrange a private baccalaureate there, said, "The class officers and our two senior sponsor teachers got together and decided it would be nice to keep the tradition alive."

In Baltimore County, Keith Harmeyer, Sparrows Point High principal, plans to explain the court's ruling to the graduation ceremony audience because most parents don't know about it. He said the school is in a conservative, patriotic area and predicts the ban will upset many and lead to privately sponsored services.

At Severna Park High in Anne Arundel County, Principal Oliver Whittig said the school will abide by the ruling and has eliminated the invocation and benediction from the graduation program.

"We will be politically correct," Mr. Whittig added, "but morally deficient."

While Maryland schools appear to be taking their cue from the Supreme Court's interpretation and avoiding even the appearance of sponsoring services that include prayer, elsewhere a bitter battle pits civil libertarians against those fighting to preserve the traditional prayer at school-sponsored ceremonies.

A group organized by evangelist Pat Robertson, the American Center for Law and Justice, has sent 15,000 school officials letters saying student-led prayer remains legal and encouraging student petitions or votes on the issue. Mr. Robertson's group also has threatened to sue school boards that ban prayer.

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