Supreme Court will not reconsider case allowing student-led prayer at graduations

Monday, December 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Student-led graduation messages, which opponents call official school prayer in thin disguise, may continue in Jacksonville, Fla., high schools. The Supreme Court said Monday it will not review a lower court's ruling that found the policy constitutionally sound.

A group of students and parents sued to block the policy in Duval County, which allowed the senior class to choose ``chaplains'' to give inspirational addresses at graduation. The school district calls the addresses ``messages,'' and notes that they may be entirely secular.

``The clear purpose of the challenged policy is to preserve a tradition of prayer at graduation,'' opponents led by the consumer and public interest group Public Citizen claimed in asking the high court to step in.

In other action, the court:

_Unanimously upheld the authority of police to investigate new crimes by searching the homes of people on probation for previous offenses. The decision in a California case reversed a finding that police investigating vandalism violated the Constitution's protection against unreasonable search by barging into the home of a man on probation for an unrelated drug crime.

_Agreed to decide whether former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other Clinton administration figures can be sued for misleading an American woman, Jennifer Harbury, about the fate of her Guatemalan rebel husband. An appeals court held that the officials unlawfully denied her access to the courts by concealing facts about Efrain Bamaca-Velasquez, who disappeared in 1992.

_Refused to consider whether it would be constitutional to require that Russell Eugene Weston, charged with killing two policemen in the U.S. Capitol, be forced to take medication for mental illness so he would be fit for a trial that could result in his execution. That sets the stage for Weston to be medicated and tried.

_Accepted for review the case of a Tennessee man whose lawyer offered no proof that he should not be put to death for murder. An appeals court said Gary Bradford Cone had a legitimate claim that his lawyer was ineffective.

Invocations and benedictions were allowed at Duval County's 15 public school graduations before a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited clergy-led prayers at public school graduations.

In 1993, school officials adopted a new policy letting high school seniors decide whether to choose a fellow student to give a ``brief opening and/or closing message'' at graduation. The student would decide the message's content with no review by school officials.

A group of students and their parents sued in 1998, saying the policy amounted to a government establishment of religion, barred by the Constitution's First Amendment.

Under the policy, students at some schools have elected a class chaplain to lead invocations and benedictions, or to give messages designated as ``reflections'' or ``inspiration.''

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has twice upheld the policy _ most recently in response to a Supreme Court order last year.

The high court told the Atlanta-based appeals court to rethink the case in light of the Supreme Court's decision in 2000 to bar student-led prayers at public high school football games. The justices said such prayers violated the constitutional principle that government will not impose religion.

The appeals court majority responded by reiterating its view that the Florida policy is constitutional because students make the choice about what to hear at graduation, and prayer is not the only choice they can make.

``Student prayer from the graduation podium ... is more coercive, and more imbued with state endorsement, than prayer at football games,'' opponents argued to the Supreme Court.

The school board's lawyers have said the policy ``neither establishes nor prohibits religious speech. It merely permits graduating senior classes to decide whether or not to include an unrestricted message as part of their ceremonies.''

The case is Adler v. Duval County School Board, 01-287.