September 25, 2013 —
PALMYRA TOWNSHIP, PA — The Wallenpaupack Area School Board on September 9 addressed concerns about the district’s stopping the practice of prayer at graduation ceremonies. The action was taken after an inquiry by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which challenged as unconstitutional the invocation and benediction that occurs at graduation exercises.
The FFRF made the inquiry after being contacted by a parent of a student at Wallenpaupack complaining about the prayer practice at the June graduation. An FFRF lawyer, citing case law, notified the district that prayer in public school is a “serious constitutional violation.”
District superintendent Michael Silsby said the district had sought a legal opinion and was told that prayers were not acceptable by law at school-sponsored events. This is despite a disclaimer placed every year in the commencement program stating, “The senior class has specifically requested that an Invocation and Benediction be included in their graduation ceremonies. The manner and content of this Invocation and Benediction is being directed by the class.”
Silsby said the decision was not one he wanted to make but the district is bound by law and must remain neutral in religious matters. If the district continues with the practice it could face litigation, said Bethlehem lawyer Lukas Repko, who was invited to the meeting by the district.
Not everyone was pleased. Taxpayer Andy Anderson said, “The silent majority has allowed this.”
Parent Michele Mascali Petersen said, “The one opinion that I will bring forth is from the many high school students that I have mentioned this issue to.… They mostly all looked at me and said ‘What about majority rules?’ Isn’t that what we have taught them since their first days in the playground?”
Silsby said, “It’s not a choice personally I don’t think we’d want to make, but when you have to look at the legal ramifications, you have to.”
The First Amendment states that government must not endorse religion, which can mean organizing or sponsoring an activity, Repko said. A public school inviting clergy to graduation ceremonies carries the presumption that the clergy are coming for religious purposes, and that is a violation of the Constitution, the lawyer said.
The First Amendment, however, protects religious activity initiated by private individuals. Repko said the law does not ban prayer in school by individuals. “There is nothing to prohibit prayer by private people, including students at graduation,” he said.
The district, however, must maintain decorum during activities such as graduation ceremonies, Repko said.
Three students are scheduled to speak at the commencement: the class president, the valedictorian and the salutatorian. The district cannot control what the students choose to say, nor can the district be sued for what the students say, Silsby said. The students have freedom of speech, and the district cannot promote or restrict what they say, he said.
Silsby noted religion is brought into school in many ways, but done so within the law. For instance, the phrase “under God” is in the Pledge of Allegiance; and chorus directors may include sacred songs among others during a holiday concert, as long as everything is balanced. After-school Bible clubs are also allowed, and the district rents out one of its schools for a local church to meet on Sundays.