First, it is important to realize that the Constitution of the United States of America, first amendment, says the following:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.The text of this amendment is key to what I am about to say. I will also add that in the U.S. Constitution and its amendments, in no other place does it mention anything with regard to religion, a god (including God), Jesus, or Christ. In fact, the only place where the word lord is used is at the end, in reference to the date:
...in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven...At the time, it was customary to present the date as such, and is not a reference, in any way, to a religious preference in the Constitution.
For those people who claim that the United States was established as a Christian Nation, I say that they need to read the Constitution sometime. The fact is that the people who founded this nation had already suffered sufficient religious persecution due to the fact that they came from a country that had established an official religion, and gave preference to those of that religion. While the founders were likely to be predominantly Christian, they were careful to not establish a state religion, and clearly wanted the free exercise of religion in the United States, regardless of the religion (or lack of it, yes, that's what the establishment clause is all about). Is the United States a Christian Nation? No. If you think so, then find me something in the Constitution indicating such (PS: referencing the Declaration of Independence is not a suitable defense, as even here there is no reference to a Christian god, simply of "Nature's God" or "Divine Providence," that is purposefully neutral).
It is clear, Constitutionally, that the United States and its government has been purposefully established without a religious preference, in the hopes that all its citizens may be able to practice as they choose, without government imposing a specific religion's values, rules, or customs upon the people, regardless of majority or predominant religion.
How does this affect public school?
Public schools were established by our state governments in order to make a basic education available to all of its citizens. This basic education is the kind of education that, at the time, could not be obtained reasonably at home: Reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and so on. The education would be taught by teachers, proficient in the subject they were to teach, who's job it was to effectively pass on this knowledge to the students. Remember, when the public school system was established there wasn't an Internet and many people could not read. Books were expensive. A public school system allowed the United States to give its citizens a higher level of competency, and to pursue their talents and occupations, regardless of income. The school system was also a very efficient use of funds such that a teacher's salary could be distributed among multiple students as opposed to a teacher teaching only one or two students at a time, as would happen with a private tutor. It is important to understand this in the context of a discussion of religion in schools because this sets the tone for why schools were established to begin with. Clearly, a religious education was already available through the church of a person's choice, even before the establishment of a public school system. It was not the charter of the public schools to teach religious education. A good discussion of this is available at http://www.servintfree.net/~aidmn-ejournal/publications/2001-11/PublicEducationInTheUnitedStates.html.
When is the public school system crossing the line into the arena of establishing an official religion, that could be construed as a state establishment of religion? When is "saying a prayer" no longer appropriate? How much religious-oriented speech is too much?
In the context of a graduation ceremony: If a prayer is made part of the ceremony itself, and if it isn't sufficiently broad as to encompass all possible faiths and beliefs, then that is violation of the establishment clause in the Constitution, in my opinion. This is because it has purposely been made a part of the ceremony, as part of the official educational process, by those who's job it is to educate students and respect the law as outlined in the Constitution. The best bet would be to keep gods out of the ceremony and stick to words of encouragement that involve the students' or teachers' hard work and other accomplishments. After all, regardless of whether those accomplishments were simply the result of learning or there was divine intervention, it is still the students who ultimately did the hard work.
If a student wants to thank a deity or son-of-a-deity for some part of their education as part of a speech, then those words of thanks should be permitted speech. There is nothing official about this, and the student isn't requesting the involvement of the audience. However, to make a request of the audience or other students as part of that speech that involves a religious practice, whether done explicitly or implicitly by encouraging the audience to join the student in a prayer, is where I draw the line. Why? Well, a student making reference to the god of their choice, for example, "I want to thank Jesus Christ for guiding me on the right path during my 13 years of school," is okay. Do we all agree with the student? Probably not. However, there is nothing about that statement that requires involvement by anyone else, and the student isn't proselytizing. However, if a student says, "I would like you to all join me in a prayer blessing me and my fellow students," or, "I am going to say a short prayer for me and my fellow students," that is not acceptable for the student's speech. Both of these are effectively encouraging the audience to participate in a religious ceremony rather than the graduation ceremony, regardless of how the student feels about their religion's involvement in their education. Such prayers should be reserved for church, the home, or a private party or such after the ceremony. Furthermore, it is not the purpose of the graduation ceremony to request divine help and guidance for the graduating class. It is, again, a time for celebrating the hard work and accomplishments of the students, and to wish them well in their future endeavors. As a government-sponsored, secular, institution, it is neither the time nor the place for divine involvement.
The question of the legality of whether, during a student speech, a student chooses to lead those gathering in a prayer is subject to debate. A student's speech is protected, and does not appear to be covered under the establishment clause, as they are not speaking on behalf of the school itself. However, given that student speech can be coerced by those in charge (and is frequently regulated for appropriateness - for example, a valedictorian speech can't be about thoughts of dismembering a teacher, as it would be grotesque and inappropriate), it is probably not a good idea for a student to lead the group in prayer, as it would raise questions about the criteria the school staff uses for student speeches.
This example provides a good foundation for the remainder of religious behavior in school, which I will keep brief:
- Call for prayer over the loudspeaker during homeroom - Not permitted. Pray with your family before school. It is not the purpose of the school to promote a moment of silence or of prayer. There is typically ample time between the end of announcements and the start of class for any student to bow their head and silently pray.
- Teaching about the historical significance of various religions in history class - Permitted, provided it sticks to factual and informative accounts as they relate to history. History is full of events that were the result of religious decisions or practices, and without an understanding of the Roman/Greek gods, Christ, etc. it would be very difficult to describe the reason for various significant events in history.
- Teaching about creationism (Intelligent Design) in science class - Not permitted. Divine creation of the universe is not a scientifically established theory, nor is it a hypothesis that has any factual basis that can be shown to be true or false. While it is possible for Intelligent Design to be true (although it is extremely doubtful), it is not an example of something that can be proved scientifically, and, therefore, is not appropriate for a science class. If you want ID education, then enroll your child in a religious school through your church, and they will not get an appropriately adequate science education.
- Students gathering during lunch/study hall for prayer - Permitted, provided there is not any pressure that other students need to join, nor does it affect, in any way, any student who wishes not to join. For example, you can't establish a prayer group for study hall and leave the non-religious student to sit in the hallway, or say that the student cannot speak with another non-religious student at the same time. In other words, provided it is strictly at the student's discretion, run by the students, for the students only, then it's OK.
- The Holy Bible as literature - Not permitted, although this one is on shaky ground. Given the violence and clear religious orientation of this work, it is clearly religious teaching and not that of a literature class (particularly given the school's tendency to avoid other controversial works, such as Catcher In The Rye). However, there probably could be some amount of literary significance to it (thank goodness that I never was forced to read it!).