Superintendent Michael Silsby, Wallenpaupack Area School District, said that an attorney has been invited to the next School Board meeting to discuss the case law involving school prayer and why the decision was made to stop the practice at graduation ceremonies.
He said this will be both for the benefit of the School Board members and interested public, at the 6 p.m. public session. The School Board meeting is scheduled next Monday, September 9 in the High School Library.
A national topic, the matter has hit home with the decision by the Wallenpapuack Area School District last month to no longer allow Invocation or Benediction at graduation. Although allowed since the founding of both the District and the Hawley High School, and performed at the request of the graduating class, the District reversed course after a challenge was made over the summer.
Following the June 14th graduation, a parent disagreeing with the practice of allowing a guest minister to offer the prayers, filed a complaint with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A lawyer from this organization in turn quickly contacted the District citing case law and asking in writing what steps would be taken to abandon school prayers.
Information on the legality of prayer in a public school and its various manifestations is available through the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ). Citing federal court rulings as they apply to Pennsylvania, the ACLJ points out that public prayer at graduation ceremonies has not been upheld whether sponsored by public school officials, or even if the students themselves make their own arrangements.
"Each year, we receive questions about graduation prayer what's permissible, what isn't," the ACLJ states. "Students do enjoy constitutional protections when it comes to expressing their faith. However, when it comes to graduation, the legal landscape is anything but clear. Court decisions in different areas of the country have produced a myriad of rulings sometimes creating confusion and conflict."
Although public prayer at graduation has not been upheld, the ACLJ also notes that courts have ruled that valedictorians and salutatorians are permitted to make their own religious remarks as a part of their speeches. Some jurisdictions require that such remarks be "non-proselytizing" and "non-sectarian."
Students, community groups, area churches, and other private individuals are entitled to
sponsor events such as religious baccalaureate services, the ACLJ further notes. If the school district has a policy of allowing its facilities to be used by outside groups, it may not prevent a community or student group from using the facilities for the purposes of having a religious baccalaureate service. The
school district, however, cannot sponsor such services.
In the case of Wallenpaupack, baccalaureate service has traditionally been held at a local church, where attendance by the students has been voluntary.
Page 2 of 2 - ACLJ is an organization dedicated to the defense of constitutional liberties secured by law. ACLJ attorneys have argued before the Supreme Court of the United States in a number of significant cases involving the freedoms of speech and religion.
For more information on this topic from the ACLJ, visit online at http://aclj.org/school-prayer/resource-for-graduation-prayer.