Of the many church-state issues debated by religious leaders and politicians, none is trickier than whether prayer should be allowed at public high school graduations.

Last month, emotions erupted in a Calvert County community after the principal of Northern High School asked a senior girl to delete references to God in an invocation she volunteered to give at graduation ceremonies. When she delivered a "reflection" in place of a prayer and asked for 30 seconds of silence, many in the audience of 4,000 began reciting aloud the Lord's Prayer.

The audience's prayerful outburst in turn angered another senior, who stormed out of the building in protest--and then was not allowed back in to receive his diploma. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is representing the male student and investigating to see whether his rights were violated.

In Florida and Idaho, appellate judges recently said they will rehear cases about students who were invited to speak at graduation and prayed during their presentations. In Idaho, the ruling to be reviewed said it was all right for students being honored at commencement to pray during their speeches; in Florida, the court had said it was not all right for students selected by their peers to pray during speeches.

Specialists in First Amendment rights attribute the "murkiness" in the school prayer debate to too few definitive court rulings and to misunderstandings about what the law allows.

The most common misconception is that the U.S. Supreme Court has banned all prayer in school, said Charles C. Haynes, editor of "Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education," published by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

The Supreme Court has ruled against state-sponsored or state-organized prayer, meaning school officials cannot organize, mandate or participate in student religious activities, including prayer. But students are free to pray alone or in groups--for example, around a flagpole before the beginning of school--as long as they do not pressure other students to attend, he said.

Student-led graduation prayers are another matter. Federal appeals courts have issued conflicting opinions, Haynes said. But most courts that have ruled on the matter consider a graduation crowd to be a captive audience and any prayers before a captive audience to be unconstitutional.

If officials are unclear about what laws apply to their school, the best approach--until a direct U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue--is to refuse to allow student prayers at graduation, Haynes said. "It's a reasonable way to go," he said.

But Jay Alan Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice in Virginia Beach, argues that the Supreme Court has left open the possibility of student-initiated, student-led prayer. In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the court "held only that . . . school officials [cannot] invite clergy to give prayers at commencement," Sekulow writes in the center's guide "Students' Rights and the Public Schools."

In an interview, Sekulow said students who have been given the opportunity to speak because of their high academic standing or leadership should be allowed to pray or say whatever they want in their speeches. To avoid charges of censorship on religion or any other subject, school officials should not read speeches in advance, he said.

Other legal minds interpret Lee v. Weisman differently. "School officials are neither required nor permitted to include a student-led prayer in a formal graduation ceremony, even if a majority of students vote to endorse the prayer," Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) wrote in a 1993 opinion about religion in public schools.

Also in 1993, the ACLU successfully challenged a Loudoun County school district plan to include student-led prayers at graduation exercises.

Haynes says the legal battles over graduation prayer are "counterproductive" and advises religious groups to hold voluntary baccalaureate services near the time of graduation. In that setting, he said, "you can have all the sermons and prayers you want."

Graduation Prayer: Where the Law Stands

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that public school officials cannot sponsor or promote any religious activity, including prayer. But it has not ruled directly on whether student-initiated, student-led graduation prayers are constitutional. Conflicting verdicts from lower courts have left this issue open to interpretation.

PERMISSIBLE

A school official may ask for a moment of silence but cannot favor prayer over other forms of contemplation by saying, "Let us pause for silent prayer."

A community group may hold a baccalaureate service at a different location and invite students, their families and friends. Diplomas cannot be distributed. The school is free to announce the service as it does other community events.

NOT PERMISSIBLE

School officials may not invite clergy to pray at graduation or any other formal event.

A principal or other official may not lead a prayer or appoint a student to do so.

UNCLEAR

At least two courts will hear arguments on whether students honored at graduation may pray during their speeches. These "designated" participants traditionally have included the valedictorian, salutatorian and class president, but some schools have expanded this format to include "a forum" of other speakers. First Amendment analysts differ on whether school administrators have the right to pre-approve--or censor--such speeches.

One court has ruled (Jones v. Clear Creek, 1992) that a graduation may include an invocation if a majority of students approve and if the prayer is led by a student volunteer, is nonsectarian and is non-proselytizing. Opponents of school prayer have rejected this interpretation of the First Amendment.

SOURCES: First Amendment Center, American Center for Law and Justice, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State

CAPTION: Jay Alan Sekulow says that in the 1992 case Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court left open the possibility of student-led prayer at graduation. Other legal minds disagree.