School Policies Vary Greatly On Prayers At Graduation

There's a multiple-choice question popular in high schools these days:

Which of the following items does not belong on this list?

A) Diploma

B) Mortarboard

C) Cap and gown

D) Prayer

At Yelm High School in Thurston County, a math teacher and the parent of a graduating senior had no trouble picking out the offending item. Last week, the two filed suit, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, to remove a planned prayer from yesterday's graduation ceremonies.

A Superior Court judge on Friday agreed with them, and there was no prayer at Yelm High School yesterday.

"I feel very strongly that I don't impose my beliefs on someone else, and I don't expect them to impose their beliefs on me," says Sharon Rosenberger, mother of Lisa Rosenberger, 18. "And that's what they're doing with prayers at graduation. It's as simple as that."

Actually, simple this issue isn't. Even in Washington, where the state Constitution specifically prohibits religion in schools, districts have taken widely different stands.

Every year at graduation time, the ACLU's phone starts buzzing, says Julya Hampton, legal program director for the ACLU of Washington. "More than half of the districts in Washington include prayer in graduation."

Sometimes, as was the case with Mountlake Terrace High School in the Edmonds School District, the school says it's sorry after a few letters and tightens up the policy or the practice. Last year, the invocation speaker - a Christian minister - led the audience in an out-and-out prayer, God and all. This year's ceremony included only a non-religious "visionary statement."

In Yelm, by contrast, it took a lawsuit to stop the prayer.

The issue, which is being battled in courts and in school districts around the country, is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The question: Is a school-sponsored prayer at graduation tantamount to the state endorsing religion, an act prohibited by the U.S. Constitution?

Steven McFarland, a Seattle attorney who submitted a "friend-of-the-court" brief in the Supreme Court case, says the issue is free speech.

"I think there are some real free-speech problems when a government tells a non-government, invited speaker what he can and can't say in a public forum," says McFarland, who works with the Christian Legal Society.

"Does anybody who is graduating from high school or college not have the brainpower to figure out that by allowing free expression in a public ceremony that the government is not endorsing every view that is expressed?" he asks. "Was Skokie (Ill.) endorsing the Nazis when it allowed them to goose step down the public streets?"

Some principals, including Peter McIntyre from Washington High School in Tacoma, argue that students desperately need the "moral guidance" of prayers.

"Personally, I think the students and people today need so much more influence of the Christian kind," says McIntyre. "It seems like every time we turn around we're taking out anything meaningful to their lives."

Still, he canceled this year's longstanding prayer by various Christian ministers after receiving legal advice.

Many school districts contend that there is such a thing as "non-denominational" prayer - a prayer that, theoretically, offends no one.

"I haven't got a problem mentioning God, per se, because we have that in the Pledge of Allegiance," says Lillian Barna, super- intendent for the Tacoma School District.

But isn't a prayer a prayer?

"That it is not a prayer for a specific denomination does not mean it's acceptable," notes Doug Honig, public-education director for the ACLU of Washington. "What the Bill of Rights is about is protecting the rights of small minorities in society."

Sharon Rosenberger was thinking about those minorities, she says, when she filed suit last week in Yelm upon learning that a Methodist minister would deliver a prayer at her daughter's graduation.

"I feel strongly about this," says Rosenberger, 43. Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, she says she's not hostile to religion. "I have very strong spiritual beliefs," but that's not the issue, she says.

"There are people who are offended by it," says Rosenberger, who has received harassing phone calls. "They may not have the courage to stand up and say, "This offends me." But I'm willing to take the public heat on this."

On Friday, ACLU-cooperating attorney Howard Stambor won a temporary restraining order from a Thurston County Superior Court judge, successfully barring the prayers from yesterday's ceremony at Yelm.

In Idaho, Oregon and California, a number of cases have been filed and communities have been torn over the issue.

"I would say that the majority of schools in Idaho have graduation prayers," says Alan Kofoed, an attorney who is president of the Idaho chapter of the ACLU. "They think that the majority rules. And when anybody objects, they label them an atheist."

In California, a deeply divided California Supreme Court recently ruled that graduation invocations and benedictions are unconstitutional.

Students picketed and parents protested as schools complied with the ruling. Over 150 students in one high school walked out of classes, carrying signs that said, "No prayer, no class."

Prayer at graduation, California Justice Joyce Kennard wrote for herself and two others, sends a "powerful message" that government approves the content.

Having even a general prayer implies the government prefers religion over non-religion, she wrote. Furthermore, it appears to prefer a religion that believes in public, petitionary prayer, "and implicitly endorses religions that address a single, anthropomorphic and male deity over those who do not," Kennard wrote.

In Washington, school districts were asked by the State Board of Education in 1983 to write religion policies.

Given a free hand, many school districts modeled their policies on a sample provided in the mid-1980s by the Washington State School Directors' Association, which allowed invocation and benediction observances "in the spirit of accommodation."

The districts' policies were never reviewed by the state superintendent of public instruction, notes Robert Patterson, assistant attorney general.

As a result, says the ACLU's Hampton, many districts continue to allow what they consider "non-denominational" prayer. And the fights rage on.

"If the majority are Christian, I think the majority should rule, even if it offends the minority," says Thomas Olmstead, an attorney who has worked with Christian groups.

For Michel Tharp, the math and science teacher who joined in filing the suit in Yelm, graduation prayers show schools aren't teaching the constitution properly.

For a statistics class project, his students sampled opinion at Yelm. "I was shocked that about 90 percent felt that prayers at graduation were OK," he said.

"As a teacher, I feel some responsibility to teach kids a little about citizenship and being a member of society," says Tharp, 45. "I think having the schools condoning religious ritual at graduation constitutes some kind of hypocrisy about lessons about freedom of religion and the separation of church and state."