KBS Reference Desk: Student Prayer at Graduation

Q:      Our graduation ceremonies are this weekend and we have a student-elected speaker slated to give the introduction. She has asked if she can provide a brief prayer as part of her remarks. Is this allowable?

A:      Yes, but only if the prayer is initiated and led by the student.

The Fifth Circuit Court has upheld a student representative’s right to deliver “nonsectarian, non-proselytizing invocations and benedictions for the purpose of solemnizing their graduation ceremonies.” Jones v. Clear Creek ISD, 977 F.2d 963 (5th Cir. 1992). In the Jones case, the school district allowed the student body to vote on the graduation invocation content. The students elected to have a nonsectarian prayer be given at the beginning of the event, and elected a representative to provide the prayer. The critical distinction that the Court made between this type of religious speech and other religious speech at school-sponsored events, was that the decision to include a prayer in the event was completely student-initiated and student led. Here, because the program simply says “introduction” and the content of the student’s message is purely up to him or her, the student’s speech is not attributable to the district and, thus, does not violate the Establishment Clause.

Before printing your programs, be sure to review your district’s board policy FNA (LEGAL) and (LOCAL) regarding student speech at graduation. Generally, the policy states that a student’s expression on an otherwise permissible subject may not be excluded from a limited public forum (e.g., graduation remarks) simply because the subject “is expressed from a religious viewpoint.” Importantly, FNA (LEGAL) provides that a verbal or written disclaimer must be provided to state that the student’s speech does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the district. Your FNA (LOCAL) policy may give more specific instructions regarding a disclaimer to be placed in your graduation programs. Such disclaimers often include a statement that the student speakers were selected based on neutral criteria and the content of their message is the private expression of the student and does not reflect any position of the District, school board, administration or employees. It is also important to ensure that your graduation programs do not indicate that the student’s message will be a “prayer” or “invocation,” rather the program should track the terms used in your FNA policy (e.g., “Opening/Closing Remarks”). This avoids the conclusion that the school district has made the decision that prayer will be a part of the program.

Related Posts

Recent Articles

KBS Reference Desk: Temporary Suspension of TPIA due to Catastrophe
August 6, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Standard for Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect
July 30, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Bullying Policies and Reporting SB 2050
July 23, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Homeschoolers and UIL
July 16, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: TOMA Suspension Extension
July 9, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Revision to Resignation without Penalty Deadline
July 2, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: SB 179 School Counselors
June 25, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: 2021 TRS Surcharge SB 202
June 18, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: When do Virtual Board Meetings End
June 11, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Buy American Program
June 4, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Board Member with Substantial Interest Closed Meeting Attendance
May 28, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Administrator Reassignments – Same Professional Capacity
May 21, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Vaccine Complications and FFCRA
May 14, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Importance of Contract Legal Review
May 7, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Negotiating Resignations
April 30, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Authority to Create New Position
April 23, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Vaccine Incentive Programs for Employees
April 16, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Felony Conviction and School Board Candidates
April 9, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: T-TESS Rubric Virtual
April 2, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: COVID-19 Vaccination Status Questions and EEO Laws
March 26, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Certification Addendum
March 19, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Lifting of Mask Mandate and Implications for UIL Activities
March 12, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Identification of TPIA Requestor
March 5, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Pay During Closure
February 26, 2021
KBS Reference Desk: Vaccines and Quarantine
February 19, 2021