December 18, 2005

Graduation Prayer

Kirksey Old Main building on the campus of Mid...
Kirksey Old Main building on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a requirement of my job, I am expected to attend graduation ceremonies at least once a year at the state university where I work. Every year, a Christian minister/pastor/priest is on hand to start things off with a sectarian prayer. Did I mention that this is a public university?

At yesterday's ceremony, a Catholic priest gave the prayer. It would have been very easy for him to extend some respect to the atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. in the audience by delivering a generic prayer. Instead, he twice claimed that "Jesus Christ" is the son of some sort of god. So much for inclusion. I wonder what the international students who were raised in different religious traditions thought about that.

Is school-initiated prayer at college graduation legal? In Lee v. Weisman [U.S., 112 S. Ct. 2649 (1992)], the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school employees (i.e., K-12) cannot promote prayer at their graduation ceremonies. Justice Kennedy wrote that the Constitution "forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation."

Unfortunately, it was left undecided whether this ruling applied to the college level, opening the door to a Tanford v. Brand (104 F.3d 982), a 1997 decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in which they declined to extend Lee to public university graduation ceremonies. Evidently, the court decided that since coercion was the critical issue and college students were too mature to experience the same kind of coercion a high school student might experience, they did not deserve the same degree of protection. I'd like to invite the members of this court to spend some time in Mississippi before deciding that non-Christian college students do not experience significant coercion.

Similarly, in 1997's Chaudhuri v. State of Tennessee (130 F.3d 232), the 6th Circuit upheld a graduation prayer at Tennessee State University. Again the issue of maturity was used in the court's reasoning. This suit, brought by a professor, was dismissed because it was determined that the official university prayer did not interfere with his right to practice his own religion and because it supposedly contained some secular value. I'm still trying to figure out how blatantly sectarian prayers can be assumed to have any secular value.

From what I can tell, it appears that prayer is likely to be allowed at college and university graduation ceremonies. This does not mean that student complaints would be ineffective, as some institutions will certainly recognize the problem and may be empowered to act if they receive complaints from students. So I would still encourage students who do not think that prayer has any place at their commencement ceremonies to complain.

What bugs me about my particular situation is that I am being compelled to attend these ceremonies by my employer - ceremonies at which I am then subjected to sectarian prayer. I may have to do a bit more legal research and see if I can find some cases that have addressed this issue.