Religious liberty in public schools - FAQs

Graduation ceremonies

Are baccalaureate services constitutional?

Yes, if they are privately sponsored. Public schools may not sponsor religious baccalaureate ceremonies. But parents, faith groups, and other community organizations are free to hold such services for students who wish to attend. The school may announce the baccalaureate in the same way it announces other community events. If the school allows community groups to rent or otherwise use its facilities after hours, then a privately sponsored baccalaureate may be held on campus under the same terms offered to any private group.

If students themselves nominate a fellow student to say a prayer at graduation, with no help from the school, will that prayer be permissible?

The answer will depend in part on the age of the graduating students and the nature of the prayer. Including a prayer by a student would pose no problems at the university level. However, high schools and junior highs have to be more careful and may need to consider the content of the prayer. Courts have found that if students organize themselves wholly independently of the school to present a sectarian prayer, if it even appears that the school was involved, the act would violate the Constitution. It is important to note that because graduation ceremonies are school-sponsored, it is difficult to avoid the appearance of school involvement. A student-initiated prayer that was non-sectarian and non-proselytizing might not violate the establishment clause, but many people object to such exercises as “civil religion” that dilutes prayer. One federal district court has held that a student chosen on the basis of neutral criteria (the valedictorian or class president, for example) may deliver a prayer of any sort on his or her own if the school is not involved – because for the school to censor the student’s religious speech would also violate the Constitution. It’s a tricky area. For those who want prayer to be included in secondary-school graduations, the best approach may be to hold a privately sponsored, voluntarily attended baccalaureate service after school hours, perhaps at a local church.