Natasha Appenheimer wasn't a typical valedictorian. As she rose to get her diploma May 20 at Washington High School in Washington, Ill., just outside Peoria, the audience booed. "It wasn't too bad," she said. "It had happened at practice, too, so I was ready for it." Just four days earlier, Miss Appenheimer and her lawyers from the state's American Civil Liberties Union chapter filed a lawsuit over the student-led invocation and benediction at the graduation ceremony. A cooperative judge issued a restraining order to stop the prayers, ending a tradition dating back 80 years. The school board buckled and senior class president Omar Yunus lectured it: "To say that there is a deity is sowing seeds of intolerance and divisiveness throughout the senior class, especially for those who believe in multiple gods or no god at all. Step aside from your personal views and look at diversity." In announcing his decision, Judge Joe Billy McDade declared, "If one student at Washington Community High School is deprived of his or her constitutional rights, then that takes precedence over the rights of the majority." But the majority was heard. The Peoria Star-Journal's Internet poll found 77 percent of respondents opposed the judge's prayer ban, and 200 students surrounded the school's flagpole before the ceremony in a prayer vigil. At the ceremony, senior speaker Ryan Brown drew a standing ovation from some for taking a moment of silence. Audience members cheered the band's playing of "God Bless America." The Star-Journal's editorial supporting the prayer ban claimed, "The irony, of course, is that there was far more prayer at Washington's graduation than there would have been had none of this happened." The incident is the latest episode of what is becoming an American tradition. At the end of every school year, graduation is a time for celebration but also litigation. In 1962, the Supreme Court outlawed organized school prayer. In 1992, the court banned prayers by school officials and outside speakers. Over the last decade, as graduation prayers fell to students to organize and lead, anti-prayer activists have taken school districts to court to end student-led prayers as well. So all roads lead to Washington, D.C., and to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the patchwork of prayer decisions over the last few years has grown so confusing that even federal judges have complained that the totality of the high court's decisions on church-state separation is "a vast and perplexing desert." Amid the confusion, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice found as a general rule, "three justices are in favor of prayer [he cited Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas], and six are not. They are very divided, and it will take a couple of retirements to bring clarity." In the meantime, federal courts have been all over the map:
- In California in 1998, the liberal-dominated 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that schools could prevent valedictorians from offering a religious message in Cole vs. Oroville Union High School. Oroville co-valedictorian Chris Niemeyer had planned a graduation speech stating that man's plans "will not fully succeed unless we pattern our lives after Jesus' example." He also wanted to say that "God seeks a personal relationship with each one of us-Jesus wants to be our best friend." After reviewing Mr. Niemeyer's speech and fellow student Ferrin Cole's invocation, Principal Larry Flynn ordered them to tone down the sectarian messages. Mr. Niemeyer and Mr. Cole filed suit. Mr. Niemeyer would not take Jesus out of his speech, so school officials banned him from speaking altogether. The judges ruled that Oroville's principal had supervisory control over all aspects of the graduation, including the content of student speeches. The Supreme Court declined to take on the case, letting the ruling stand in states of the 9th Circuit.
- Last year the Supreme Court declared that student-led prayers over the public address system before high-school football games in Santa Fe, Texas, was unconstitutional. But that decision didn't mandate the end of student-led graduation prayers, and it left up for grabs the definition of government neutrality in regard to religion. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union believe neutrality toward religion means no religious speech at a school microphone. Pro-prayer lawyers argue that neutrality means that students marking the end of their high-school days are free to espouse religion, or atheism, or the sounds of silence.
- Last month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Adler vs. Duval County School Board, ruled in favor of student prayer by a vote of 8 to 4. (The full-court "en banc" ruling is rare, since most appeals-court rulings come from a three-judge panel.) Unlike the "prayer-only" policy in the Santa Fe case, the Adler case centered on the policy that Jacksonville, Fla., area schools instituted for graduation in 1993: Graduating students could speak on any topic, secular or religious, or no topic, free of school oversight or censorship. The ACLU still had complained that students could thank not only family and friends, but G-O-D as well.
Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based legal group that represented the Adlers, called the ruling "a stunning victory for student speech (which includes prayer) at graduation." President and general counsel Mat Staver said students' free speech shouldn't end before graduation. "If you allow students to go to the podium on a topic of their choosing, but say you can't talk about religion or God, it sends a message of hostility, of inferiority, and that your faith is a disability rather than something protected by the Constitution." The other two branches of the federal government are largely ducking the debate. Other than fighting over new judges and justices, President Bush and Congress are not expected to alter the secularizing trend in public schools. Last year's Republican platform put religious matters squarely in the judicial branch: "While the Constitution guards against the establishment of state-sponsored religion, it also honors the free exercise of religion. We believe the federal courts must respect this freedom and the original intent of the Framers." In a graduation speech at Notre Dame on May 19, the President argued that individual lives are measured by how they reflect God's image, but the White House focus on religion is more on its power to fight poverty and addiction than its power to inspire students. And due to the thin Republican majority in the House, Rep. Ernest Istook has not tried to introduce his Religious Freedom Amendment to the Constitution, which would restore school prayer, during this session of Congress. So the action is in the courts, and the ACLU remains on the warpath, even though its arguments often sound contradictory. Example: Pamela Sumners, the ACLU attorney in the Appenheimer case, praised Judge McDade's prayer ban for protecting "the rights of parents in recognizing that the appropriate place for deciding when and how children pray is in the family, not a school system." But the ACLU does not extend that principle to parents' rights to determine whether schools can encourage their children to have sex, use condoms, and get abortions. The group has opposed parental-rights bills on those subjects: "If enacted, these bills would cause an explosion of litigation against school systems and youth-service agencies." Pro-family groups lament that while so-called civil libertarians are emptying prayer out of schools, they're filling the curriculum with paganism and sexual and political liberalism. "It's not that schools are putting morality aside. They say 'we're going to teach our own morality,' but it's disguised as hate speech lessons, or lessons in reproductive health, or 'deep ecology' units," complained Miriam Moore of the Family Research Council. "In the name of fairness, and a First Amendment clause insisting on people being free to form their own opinions, children are only presented one side at school."