ACLU of Illinois Asks School Officials to End Divisive Prayers at Graduation Ceremony

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
May 14, 2001 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Illinois
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CHICAGO–Calling on officials at Washington Community High School to demonstrate respect and tolerance for the religious freedom of all students, the American Civil Liberties Union today asked the Superintendent at the school to cancel plans to include an invocation and benediction at their graduation ceremony on May 20, 2001.

In making this call, the organization also released a copy of a letter its legal staff sent to Washington School Superintendent Lee Edwards last week urging that the practice of including these administration-approved prayers at graduation be discontinued.

The ACLU of Illinois asked Superintendent Edwards to respond to its request by the close of business on Friday, May 11. The organization received no response.

“It is important that school officials in Washington and elsewhere respect the rights of parents to decide when and how their children should pray,” said, Jane M. Whicher, staff attorney for the ACLU of Illinois in Chicago. “Parents, not public officials, should make decisions about their children’s religious activity. ”

The ACLU of Illinois recently learned of Washington’s practice of including prayers at the graduation ceremony from local citizens who objected to their inclusion. According to local citizens, parents and students who contacted the ACLU of Illinois, the prayers offered at the service are reviewed and approved by the school administration prior to the ceremony. Others reported to the ACLU that when some students objected to the inclusion of the prayer at the graduation ceremony, the matter was put to a vote of the Senior Executive Board, a group that voted to affirm the inclusion of the prayers in the ceremony.

Late last week, Edwards turned down the request of a group of school parents and community religious leaders to cancel the prayers at graduation.

“The school administration should listen to the parents, students and religious leaders who are voicing their objections to this practice,” said Whicher of the ACLU. “These students are expressing concerns about attending and participating in their own high school graduating ceremony – an important event at this point in life – because they are being forced to participate in a religious service that does not reflect their values, but meets with the approval of school officials. The students’ strong feelings should inform the administration that this coerced religious participation is unwise and divisive.”

“The school’s practice of planning a ceremony that includes an invocation and benediction and of pre-approving the prayers is directly contrary to clear Supreme Court law,” added Whicher. “For the school to continue with this practice is not just unlawful, it is a poor civics lesson for the Washington High School student body.”

The ACLU’s letter cites two recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court making clear that prayer at public schools like that scheduled for the Washington High School graduation ceremony violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In the first case, Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Court struck down a longstanding tradition in one school district of inviting clergy to given an invocation and a benediction. In another case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000), the Court held that a school’s practice of facilitating prayer at public events, including the use of a school public address system and holding a popular election to determine the student selected to give the prayer, “encourages divisiveness along religious lines and threatens the imposition of coercion upon students not desiring to participate in a religious exercise.”

“The practice of prayers at the Washington High School graduation ceremony falls clearly on the side of an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the school,” said Whicher. “The Court has made this clear in Lee and Santa Fe.”

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