New U.S. guidelines issued in February promise to further complicate annual disputes and legal wrangling over what kind of religious language students can use at public school graduation ceremonies. Schools are scrambling to adhere to the Department of Education guidelines, issued as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, because for the first time they have teeth: If schools do not accommodate "constitutionally protected prayer," they risk losing public funds. While most of the guidelines aren't new, critics say may too strongly encourage prayer at a time when federal courts around the country have issued conflicting rulings about what is acceptable student expression at graduation.
Schools must adhere to different legal standards depending on what federal circuit they are in. In the Northeast, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1996 that the regional high school board in Camden County, N.J., could not let graduating seniors vote on whether a student should say a prayer at graduation. The court said the vote did not remove the appearance that the state was sanctioning prayer. In the Southwest, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2000 that while a student in Parker County, Texas, had the right to lead a prayer at graduation, the school district also had the right to edit her prayer in advance to make sure it was nonsectarian and did not proselytize.
Many hope or expect that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue soon. Meanwhile more schools are opting for one solution that already has the Supreme Court's blessing: A moment of silence, which church-state experts say respects anyone's wish to pray in any matter they choose, or to not pray at all.
How have your state and local school officials reacted to the new guidelines? Are student speakers, in an emotional time of global unrest, planning more religious expression at public high school commencement ceremonies? What do parents and educators say? Have the guidelines settled the issue or created more room for debate? Will the result be - as some predict - even more court cases? Why it matters
Many parents and students feel strongly that graduation ceremonies should include an explicit invocation of God's blessing and that student speakers have the right to use religious language, even if it's specific to one faith tradition. Others say that allowing students to use school-sponsored events for a religious purpose is tantamount to public school endorsement of religion and should be avoided so that audience members do not feel excluded or evangelized.