May 9, 2007

Religion in the Public Schools

School Officials and Student Speech

The courts have drawn a sharp distinction between officially sponsored religious speech, such as a benediction by an invited clergyman at a commencement ceremony, and private religious speech by students.The Supreme Court made clear in Lee v.Weisman (1992) that a clergyman’s benediction at a public school event would violate the separation of church and state. Judges usually reach that same conclusion when school officials cooperate with students to produce student-delivered religious messages. But federal courts are more divided in cases involving students acting on their own to include a religious sentiment or prayer at a school commencement or a similar activity.

Some courts, particularly in the South, have upheld the constitutionality of student-initiated religious speech, emphasizing the private origins of this kind of religious expression. As long as school officials did not encourage or explicitly approve the contents, those courts have upheld religious content in student commencement speeches.

In Adler v. Duval County School Board (1996), for example, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals approved a system at a Florida high school in which the senior class, acting independently of school officials, selected a class member to deliver a commencement address. School officials neither influenced the choice of speaker nor screened the speech. Under those circumstances, the appeals court ruled that the school was not responsible for the religious content of the address.

Other courts, however, have invalidated school policies that permit student speakers to include religious sentiments in graduation addresses. One leading case is ACLU v. Black Horse Pike Regional Board of Education (1996), in which the senior class of a New Jersey public high school selected the student speaker by a vote without knowing in advance the contents of the student’s remarks.The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nevertheless ruled that the high school could not permit religious content in the commencement speech.The court reasoned that students attending the graduation ceremony were as coerced to acquiesce in a student-led prayer as they would be if the prayer were offered by a member of the clergy, the practice forbidden by Weisman in 1992. (Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who was then a member of the appeals court, joined a dissenting opinion in the case, arguing that the graduating students’ rights to religious and expressive freedom should prevail over the Establishment Clause concerns.)

Similarly, in Bannon v. School District of Palm Beach County (2004), the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Florida school officials were right to order the removal of student-created religious messages and symbols from a school beautification project.The court reasoned that the project was not intended as a forum for the expression of students’ private views but rather as a school activity for which school officials would be held responsible.

Photo credit: Corbis