Julie Underwood

Religion and public education have had a controversial relationship, and it’s one that’s often highlighted at this time of year as graduation ceremony plans begin to take shape. The question at hand is this: Can religion play a part in graduation ceremonies?

The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (U.S. Const. Amend. 1) Maintaining the wall of separation without being hostile to religion has been a challenge faced by government officials, public school teachers, and administrators.

Official prayer

The U.S. Supreme Court found that official prayer at graduation ceremonies was unconstitutional. In Lee v. Weisman (U.S. 1992), the school’s practice was to invite a clergy member to provide a prayer at the middle school graduation. To avoid controversy, school officials told the clergy that the prayer had to be nonsectarian. Yet the Supreme Court found that regardless of the nonsectarian nature of the prayer, it was still prayer, which is a religious activity that the state is not allowed to dictate. In addition, religious activity at a school function could exert “coercive pressure” on the students attending, creating discomfort for those who do not believe in the message.

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