Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson


OLYMPIA, July 11, 1996, Based on a review of the U.S. Supreme Court and 9th Circuit decisions, the Attorney General's Office has told Shelton-area legislators that planned public prayer at high school commencement programs would violate the state constitution.  

State Senator Brad Owen and State Representatives Peggy Johnson and Tim Sheldon asked the AG's Office for the opinion because the Shelton School District was contemplating a change to its policy regarding religious -related activities.  

Attorney General Christine Gregoire said her office analyzed previous decisions from the federal courts on the matter of planned, public prayer at commencement programs. The courts have consistently concluded that such planned prayer practices would violate the federal constitution.

The AG's Office said there was no need to separately analyze the state constitutional issues raised by prayer at commencement programs because the state constitution is stricter than the federal with regard to the support of religion with public funds and/or property.  

The AG's Office said that private prayers at commencement exercises, which are not a part of the planned program and which do not disrupt it, are constitutional under current case law.  

State appellate courts have never analyzed school prayer under the state constitution.

Attorney General opinions provide advice to the Legislature and state officials and, traditionally, have been accorded great weight by the Washington State Supreme Court in interpreting state law.  

The opinion was written by Senior Assistant Attorney General James Pharris.