Releases Resource for Students and School Staff

May 4, 2011

CONTACT: Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director, (615) 320-7142

NASHVILLE – With many public high school graduations around the corner, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) distributed their briefing paper, “Keeping Graduation & Prom Inclusive,” to Tennessee’s 136 public school superintendents and to youth organizations statewide. Based on the guarantees of the Bill of Rights and federal court decisions, the briefing paper outlines which graduation and prom activities in public schools are and are not permissible.

According to Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN Executive Director, “Our goal in distributing the briefing paper to Tennessee superintendents is to ensure that the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and freedom of speech are applied to graduation and to prom. It’s important that all students feel welcome and able to participate in this year’s festivities.”

The briefing paper was prepared in an attempt to provide constitutionally-sound guidelines for school administrators and teachers and to clarify any confusion in the public schools regarding religious activities at graduation or the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students at prom.

The ACLU-TN letter accompanying the guide explains that the United States Supreme Court has long held that prayers at public school graduation ceremonies, even when nonsectarian or nonproselytizing, violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Weinberg explains, “The absence of graduation prayer does not prohibit students from affirming their religious beliefs before or after the ceremony in privately-sponsored baccalaureate services. These services, held separately from the school’s graduation program, are permissible as long as they are entirely voluntary, and are neither sponsored nor supervised by school officials.”

In addition, the ACLU-TN briefing paper explains that the First and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee that same-sex couples cannot be barred from attending prom and that female students cannot be prohibited from wearing tuxedos to the prom. The possibility that others might disapprove of such free expression is not sufficient grounds to stifle it.

Weinberg urged school superintendents to share the briefing paper with staff and students and to contact ACLU-TN with any questions they may have. Students and families are encouraged to contact ACLU-TN if they have problems with graduation or prom at their schools (615-320-7142 or

A copy of ACLU-TN’s letter to superintendents can be found here.

ACLU-TN’s briefing paper, “Keeping Graduation & Prom Inclusive,” can be found here.