Generally, state-sponsored prayer at offical school functions presents grave problems of constitutionality. In Lee v. Weisman (1992), for example, the Supreme Court ruled that attendance at graduation ceremonies is not truly voluntary, and that the state cannot require students to sit through a religious activity (eg., prayer) as the price of attending his or her graduation. This decision seems to follow naturally from previous lower court decisions banning state-sponsored prayer at school assemblies (Collins v. Chandler Unified School District, 1981), football games (Jager v. Douglass County School District, 1989), and althetic events generally (Doe v. Aldine, 1982).
In Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court held that including clerical members who offer prayers as part of the official school graduation ceremony is not consistent with the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. Briefly, a 14 year old girl participating in the graduation ceremonies at a Providence, RI, middle school objected to the practice of inviting members of the clergy to give invocations and benedictions at middle and high school graduations. School officials provided their invited clergy with a pamphlet which instructed that the invocation and benediction should be nonsectarian.
In spite of the school officials' attempt to invoke the lowest common denominator religion principle, the Court found that the program did not pass its test for constitutionality. The fact that the state attempted to control or regulate the type of prayer given at graduation meant if fell squarely underneath the prohibition articulated in Engel against requiring students to recite a prayer constructed by school officials. Hence, the Court held:
The government involvement with religious activity in this case is pervasive, to the point of creating a State-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school.
And later in the opinion, the Weisman Court again relies on the element of compulsion and coercion to invalidate the practice:
The prayer exercises in this cases are especially improper because the State has in every practical sense compelled attendance and participation in an explicit religious exercise at an event of singular importance to every student, one the objecting student had no real alternative to avoid.
The same principle applies to other official school functions; when the state requires students or parents to sit through prayer as a condition of participating in a public school activity, the state is effectively coercing attendance at a religious ceremony. And make no mistake: in many of these cases, school activities are used as an instrument of coersion. Athletes, for example, are put under enormous pressure to do things as a team; how realistic is it for student-athletes to refuse to participate in the team's pre-game prayer when they know that such a refusal will jeapordize their status as "team players?" Similarly, how realistic is it for Jewish students to simply "ignore" graduation prayers uttered in the name of Christ, or non-believing students to "ignore" graduation prayers of any type at all? Realistically, the only way to avoid these sorts of problems is to take the state out of the prayer business entirely, and let individuals to make such decisions for themselves.
We conclude with a summary of the relevant law in Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law, a consensus document undersigned by over 30 religious and civil liberties groups concerned with the issues of religious liberty.
The courts have reached conflicting conclusions under the federal Constitution on student-initiated prayer at graduation. Until the issue is authoritatively resolved, schools should ask their lawyers what rules apply in their area.