Prayers Dropped From S.C. High School Graduation

A South Carolina high school dropped a prayer from its graduation ceremony after Americans United for Separation of Church and State complained about the constitutionality of the practice.

Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, S.C., had a practice of allowing its senior class to vote on whether prayer would be included in graduation ceremonies. Acting on behalf of a student who objected to the set-up, Americans United Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser sent a letter to the superintendent of the Rock Hill School District in late May warning that litigation could ensue if the prayer policy was not halted.

AU's letter noted that in 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a Texas high school policy that allowed a student election on prayer at school events. In Santa Fe Independent School Dis­trict v. Doe, the high court concluded that the policy "empowers the student body majority with the authority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages."

Citing other Supreme Court precedent, AU's letter explained that "delivery of a prayer at public school graduations is unconstitutional in part because it coerces students who do not subscribe to the religious views reflected in the prayer to submit to a religious ceremony." Public schools via a student election on prayer "cannot constitutionally put students to the choice of attending their graduations and sitting through a prayer or absenting themselves from the graduation in order to avoid a prayer," AU's letter argued.

AU asked the school district "to agree not to include prayers (pursuant to a student election system or pursuant to any other procedure) in graduation ceremonies in your school district in future years." If the district would not agree to correct its policy, AU said it was prepared to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the students who complained about the prayer policy.

Northwestern High School students informed AU's legal department that prayer was replaced by a moment of silence at their commencement exercises.