Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Graduation Prayer Decision Worth Reading At Length

Constitutional doctrine surrounding the issue of student-led prayer at elementary school graduation is sufficiently well settled that one would expect an opinion on the issue to be rather routine.  Those expectations are upset by the literate opinion handed down Monday by South Carolina federal district court Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks.  American Humanist Association v. South Carolina Department of Education, (D SC, May 18, 2015) involves a challenge to policies of the Greenville County School District.  Initially many schools in the district selected 5th grade students to deliver an opening and closing prayer at graduation ceremonies.  The content of each prayer-- consistently Christian-- was reviewed in advance and approved by school officials.

After suit was filed, the school district admitted the problems with its practices and switched to a neutral policy.  If a student is selected to speak at graduation on the basis of neutral criteria such as class rank or academic merit, the student may decide on the content of the speech, which can be a religious message or prayer or can be a secular inspirational message.  The court issued an injunction against the school district's original policy, but refused to enjoin its more recent neutral approach, saying in part:
To the undersigned there is no more sacred liberty than an individual’s personal view of his or her cosmological origin – divine or chance, intentional or naturally selective. And, cultures have developed various names for the posture we assume in the direction of our creative source, most notably, prayer. But, also meditation and pilgrimage. Namaste. Surfing. Fly fishing. Science. The citizens of this country have the privilege of electing between the innumerable alternatives in religious practice. Our constitution has established but one caveat: “The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State.” ...
The Christian community, in certain parts, feels besieged. This sense has two sources. The first is the view that people of faith cannot practice their religion and its tenets as they wish. The second is a genuine compassion for this country -- that it know a redeeming faith. To certain parts of Western Christianity, the lack of prayer in the public sector is not only a symptom of declining religiosity and moralism but is, in part, the cause itself.
In contrast, those of different faith or no religious faith at all are exhausted of this historical conflation of judeo-christianism and public ceremony persistent even to now and our exceedingly modern and pluralistic times. Those that oppose religious practice in schools are exasperated.
The Court has sympathy for both views, indeed, relates. But, the undersigned’s most overwhelming rhetorical reaction to all of this is how in 2015 is there still any debate or legal nuance to hash over prayers at graduation? One side insists on securing every slight remaining loophole of religious demonstration in school and the other is chasing to the ends of the earth the last pitiful vestiges of these practices that have been essentially neutered of all possible eternal meaning and effect....  It is conceivable, however, that, in this war over the private conscious made public, the better strategy is arms laid down in recognition of the human psychology that we are always made more in our submission than our entitlement....
Moving to examine the school district's modified policy, the court said in part:
[P]recisely because of the historical inclusion of prayer and religious speech at graduations, in this school district and State, it is conceivable that the cultural residue of prior practices might continue to color and confuse the application and invitation of, even now, constitutionally neutral practices. The undersigned is vigilant to identify any kind of wink and nod maneuvering.
But, the plaintiffs now have a serious kind of evidentiary problem. The impropriety of the old practice having been entirely confessed, the majority of the plaintiffs’ legal precedent and factual history are neutralized.....
What is continuously confused by the proponents of prayer in school or public forum is that these affirmative attempts to invite or measure the “voluntary choice” of students to pray, in the very same moment, renders that choice less than wholly voluntary. The very act of raising the issue alters the degree of its voluntariness. It is like the Observer Effect. In the moment we measure it, it is changed. So, when the decisions talk of private speech, in this perilous hybrid of public ceremony conducted by actual individuals and citizens, the expectation, if it means anything, is that the religiosity, if any at all, must spring forth from the imagination solely of the speaker and not as the result of expectations and pressures attributable, or historic, to, state action in the graduation or event itself. Moved in the spirit, so to speak....
This Court sits in one of the great parts of the world, in people and heritage. There are many in our city and county and State who are the inheritance of a meaningful practice of various religion, maybe Christianity most predominately. Their tenets and freedom to live them matter. But, there is a new and growing richness of population, here, in culture and background, that is transforming the complexion of mores and discourse and daily experience, in both public and private ways. The new practice of the defendant is constitutional. But, plaintiffs are affirmed. Not in their full request for legal remedy but in their aspiration for equal liberty. For too long school districts have cleverly resisted, with every manner of contortion, the force of Establishment jurisprudence to justifiably eliminate all state-sponsored rite. At least one has gotten it exactly right.
Concomitant to the effectiveness of the defendant’s new practice is the need that it be effectively communicated. The legacy of the historic inclusion of such prayers at graduation might still be coercively operative on contributing students.... Without affirmative instruction that prayer and religious messaging are no longer required, there is some risk that a student may yet still feel compelled. The defendant school district must, therefore, reasonably publicize the new practice to students participating in any graduations.
The American Humanist Association announced that it would appeal the decision.  Last week in a separate opinion (full text), the district court dismissed on mootness and standing grounds a challenge in the same case to the school district's policy of holding some graduation ceremonies at a religious chapel on a local college campus.