This information provided by The Federal Observer, http://www.federalobserver.com
By Anne Gearan - Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court backed away from a confrontation over student-led prayers at high school graduations today, an action that all sides in the church-state fight say increases pressure for a stronger religious presence at public school ceremonies.
The court did not comment in turning down an appeal from a high school student near Jacksonville, Fla., who objected to the school's policy of letting the senior class pick a classmate to deliver a graduation "message."
The chosen student is often the class chaplain, an elected office like president or treasurer. Although the messages need not be religious, religion was the theme of all but four addresses delivered over three years at 17 public high schools in Duval County, Fla.
The school argued that students, not teachers or administrators, make all the decisions about whether there will be an address, who will give it and whether it will be religious.
The Supreme Court's action today was not a decision on the merits of the policy, but will be read as a signal that other schools can avoid constitutional problems if they install the same policy, lawyers said.
"The fact that the Supreme Court refused to review the case sends a green light to other school districts that they can produce a neutral policy," said Matthew Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, a religious civil liberties and legal defense organization. The group intervened on behalf of students who wanted religious addresses.
For now, policies like Duval County's are permissible in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, the three states governed by a federal appeals court that has twice found the policy does not violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
"Some school districts around the country have been trying to latch onto different devices to accomplish the same purpose," since the Supreme Court banned clergy-led prayer at public school graduations in 1992, said Gray Thomas, a lawyer representing Duval students who said they were outnumbered and outvoted in opposing graduation prayer.
"I think this may be one additional idea for somebody to latch onto," Thomas said.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he is disappointed that the Supreme Court did not take on the students' appeal, but cautioned against reading too much into that action.
Nonetheless, he said, "I know religious or right-of-center groups will try to manipulate it," to advance the cause of graduation prayer.
Invocations and benedictions were allowed at Duval County graduations before the 1992 Supreme Court ruling.
In 1993, school officials adopted a new policy letting high school seniors decide whether to choose a fellow student to give a "brief opening and/or closing message" at graduation. The student would decide the message's content with no review by school officials.
Some students have run election campaigns in which they promise to pray if elected as the speaker. So far, no one has won by promising to deliver an anti-religious message, Thomas said.
Dissenting students and parents sued in 1998, charging that the school was trying to do an end run around the Supreme Court's ruling.
The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last ruled in the case in response to an order from the Supreme Court to rethink the case in light of its 2000 decision barring student-led prayers at public high school football games.
The appeals court majority responded by reiterating its view that the Florida policy is constitutional because students make the choice about what to hear at graduation, and prayer is not the only choice they can make.
The school's lawyers argued that the appeals court was correct, and there was no need for the Supreme Court to get involved now.
Unlike the football example, students in this case do not vote specifically on whether to pray, the school argued.
"Students vote only on whether there may be speech, free speech," the school's lawyers wrote.
The case is Adler v. Duval County School Board, 01-287. Copyright (c) 2001, The Associated Press