Content, context determine if Houston schools violated religion clause in Constitution

cgrant@macon.comJune 17, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- A national organization claims prayers and religious musical performances at two Houston County high school graduations violated the U.S. Constitution.

Whether that is the case depends on the facts, details and context of what actually occurred at the ceremonies, said Gary J. Simson, dean and Macon Chair in Law at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law.

Houston County schools received two complaints earlier this month from a Madison, Wisc.-based nonprofit organization geared toward protecting the separation of church and state.

The letters from the Freedom From Religion Foundation state it is unlawful for school-sponsored events to include prayer or for public schools to endorse Christianity by way of worship songs at such events.

The occurrences at Veterans and Perry high schools’ graduations, about which the organization received complaints, showed “a systematic problem that requires immediate action to ensure that all Houston County Schools do not violate the U.S. Constitution in the future,” read a letter from Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the organization.

School officials have declined to comment on the allegations, saying only they are aware of the concern, and the district’s intent is to “comply with the prevailing law in these matters.”

What the law says

The topic of prayer at public high school graduations is not a new one, said Simson, who specializes in religion and law. A 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lee v. Weisman, dealt very specifically with the issue.

“It really just said prayers at high school graduations are inappropriate because basically you have a captive audience, and the students who are there are being forced in a way to participate in a religious exercise,” Simson said.

That decision was a logical extension of 1960s cases that ruled Bible readings and prayers to begin the school day were unconstitutional, he said. In 2000 a decision deemed prayer over a loudspeaker before a football game also out of bounds.

Prayer in those decisions not only included references to a particular religious figure, such as Christ, but other general religious references, such as God, which could cover a number of beliefs.

Non-religious invocations are permissible, Simson said, giving an example as one that begins, “We are thankful that it is such a beautiful day.”

“The simplest part of this is the invocation itself and if it was religious,” he said.

All six of Houston County’s graduations included student-led prayers referencing God, Christ or the Lord, videos of the ceremonies show.

The fact that the prayers were delivered by students has no bearing, Simson said.

“It really doesn’t matter who says it or if the decision to say it was left up to the students,” he said, explaining the school system creates the captive audience situation of a graduation.

The Supreme Court ruling is explicit when it comes to prayer in public schools, Simson said, adding that he would assume all districts have rules in place saying “this shouldn’t happen.”

“I think (if they were having prayers) this is enough to deter them in the future,” he said. “The law is pretty clear on prayer. With the superintendent’s speech, you really have to hear all the facts.”

The first Freedom From Religion Foundation letter sent to Houston schools Superintendent Robin Hines regarding the Veterans High graduation likened the ceremony to a church service, saying Hines delivered a sermon-like address to students during the event that also included prayer and religious song.

However, Hines simply referring to God in a speech would not necessarily be a government establishment of religion violation, Simson said.

“The main issue is that with prayer and gospel songs coupled with the superintendent’s speech, what you really don’t want to have is the graduation to be what you would call a religious exercise,” he said.

The line could be drawn in the context, Simson said, explaining that there is a big difference between telling students “you need to live your life according to Christ” versus mentioning or making reference to God.

“Are they doing anything that in any way is proselytizing or endorsing religion (is the question),” he said.

Veterans and Perry high schools were the only ones to have songs that could be seen as having religious messages at graduation, according to video of the ceremonies.

At Perry High School, the songs “How Great is Our God” by Christian artist Chris Tomlin and “The Prayer,” which is commonly known as a duet between Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli, were sung.

Christian artist Mark Harris’ “Find Your Wings” was performed at Veterans High.

Hines delivered similar, roughly three-minute addresses at each of the schools’ graduations, dedicating much of that time to acknowledging school officials, family members and military service people.

Near the end of his speech, Hines spent about 30 seconds encouraging students to dedicate time to spiritual growth.

“Believe in God and have a faith-based relationship,” Hines told graduates at Veterans High. “When you have those days when nothing seems to go right -- and I promise you, you will have those days -- your faith will serve you well as you experience life’s peaks and valleys. ... May God bless you today and in the future.”

Local district policies

Houston County has one policy as it relates to prayer, and that deals specifically with athletic events, spokeswoman Beth McLaughlin said.

Prayers or messages advocating a particular religion or religion in general are prohibited before any school-sponsored athletic event.

The policy regarding school ceremonies and observances allows several activities, including “playing, singing and presenting music which is religious in its inspiration or origin.” It notes that while the Supreme Court has declared it illegal to hold formal prescribed religious exercises in public schools, a number of school activities are permitted “so long as they do not take on the character of religious devotions.”

School districts across the midstate vary in their approaches to prayer at school functions.

Monroe County Superintendent Anthony Pack said there was a short student-led prayer during this year’s Mary Persons High School graduation. The district hasn’t heard any community reaction to the prayer, he said.

While the Monroe County school district has no policy allowing or prohibiting prayer, Bibb County’s district rules specifically address the topic of school prayer and use of religious material.

“District employees, students and clergy may not give prayers, invocations or benedictions at any school functions, including, but not limited to, graduation exercises and football games,” the policy, adopted in 2000, states. “This policy does not prohibit students from voluntarily praying at any time before, during or after school, as long as it is not disruptive. District employees may not influence the form or content of prayer or other religious activity.”

Bibb County schools spokesman Donald Porter said enforcement of the policy has not been a problem for the district.

A sensitive issue

The complaints against Houston County schools have sparked much reaction from local residents and debate about whether prayer should be allowed at school functions.

The second letter written to the district from the Freedom From Religion Foundation said, “Some of the local citizens have reacted with less than gracious attitudes towards the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, retaliating against the protections of that document with the claim that ‘if non-Christians don’t want to hear it, they can leave.’ ”

Seidel said the issue of prayer in public schools is not an uncommon one for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, especially during graduation season.

The organization recently joined a student in filing a lawsuit against a South Carolina school district for allowing prayer at its graduation after allowing the graduating class to vote on the matter.

Simson said schools are a particularly sensitive place because the Supreme Court has recognized students are more susceptible to peer pressure and outside influences, Simson said.

“(Religion) is something that people feel about so deeply,” he said, adding that the Constitution is in place to protect the minority from the will of the majority.

Even if 98 percent of the community believes one religion, the Constitution is there to protect the 2 percent who believe in another religion or no religion, Simson said.

“For a lot of constitutional rights, we’re reliant on people coming forward and not being worried about the personal consequences,” he said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has received at least five complaints from four people -- three from Middle Georgia -- about the Houston County graduations.

“Often what really happens is things happen sometimes, and no one really has the courage to complain because they become a pariah if they do,” Simson said.

Simson said he hopes the issue of religion in schools is not one that would create turmoil in the area.

People tend to be more religious in the Bible Belt, he said, noting that when communities have less diversity there is a greater chance that the environment might not respect other people’s beliefs.

However, he sees Macon, where he lives, as a tolerant community.

“It’s a different environment, but my perception is that people I’ve run into have been very respectful,” he said.

Simson said he hadn’t spent much time in Houston County to gauge the community there, but in many cases it is highly religious people who believe most strongly in the principles of church-state separation.

Many deeply religious people are very opposed to having prayer at such events because officials will tend to degrade or water-down religion in an attempt to be inoffensive, he said.

“Someone who is very religious could say, ‘This is not a real prayer. If I’m going to pray, I want to really pray. Not just some generic, amorphous prayer.’ ... It could offend a truly religious person,” Simson said.

One of the constructs of the establishment of religion clause is that religion thrives in a society in which government is not in the business of religion, he said.

The Constitution recognizes religion as a very personal and deep thing. The message of the establishment of religion clause is “don’t interfere with people’s practice of it and don’t endorse it,” Simson said.

To contact writer Caryn Grant, call 256-9751.

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