The Utah attorney general's office has released an informal opinion that school graduation prayers may not take place, regardless of whether they are planned by school officials, students, a private individual or organization.
Nationally, some groups have interpreted last year's Supreme Court decision against graduation prayers loosely, suggesting that if students themselves plan a graduation program, they may include prayers, said Assistant Attorney General John McAllister.Some Utah districts have sought guidance, often because they are being pressured by constituents reluctant to accept the Supreme Court decision, McAllister said.
In a letter addressed to Douglas F. Bates, legal counsel to the State Board of Education, the attorney's office said, "We conclude that a school or school district may not authorize or encourage prayer as part of a school-sponsored or directed graduation ceremony."
Bates told the Deseret News that he expected there will be some violations of the prayer ban as high school graduations get under way this week across Utah. In some instances, prayers could be given in the guise of "talks" in an effort to raise the free-speech question, he suggested.
McAllister said members of the attorney general's staff have met with officials from some Utah districts and "reminded them that they run the risk of civil rights suits. Being elected officials, school board members must uphold the Constitution."
Lee vs. Weisman, a Rhode Island case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, is the latest word on school prayer, and the Utah decision must be based on that ruling, he said.
"We want to try to prevent districts from getting embroiled in lawsuits," he said.
Cases now pending in Idaho and Texas could further refine the prayer issue, but they are still in process, McAllister said.