WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court decided Monday not to review a lower court's ruling that a high school may continue to have students give graduation "messages," which opponents called school prayer in disguise.
The court's rejection of the Jacksonville, Fla., case means that the students and parents who sued to block the policy have lost their final battle.
"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 had said in a friend-of-the-court brief.
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."
Duval County 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.
Duval County's 15 public schools allowed invocations and benedictions until 1992, when the Supreme Court prohibited clergy-led prayers at public school graduations.
In 1993, school officials adopted a 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. Students at some schools have elected a class chaplain to lead invocations and benedictions, or to give messages designated as "reflections" or "inspiration."
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.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has twice upheld the policy — most recently in response to a Supreme Court order last year.
But the Supreme Court ordered the Atlanta-based appeals court to rethink the case in light of the high 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 case is Adler v. Duval County School Board, 01-287.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.