ACLU-TN Responds to Religious & Anti-Gay Activity in Tennessee Public Schools

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
April 28, 2010 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Tennessee
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Urges Schools to Keep Graduation and Prom Inclusive for All Students


NASHVILLE – Responding to concerns about recent religious and anti-gay activities in Tennessee public schools, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) sent out their briefing paper, “Keeping Graduation & Prom Inclusive,” to Tennessee’s 137 public school superintendents and to youth groups 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 experience is that many educators and administrators are unfamiliar with how the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and freedom of speech apply to graduation prayer or to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students at prom. Our goal is to ensure that this year’s festivities are welcoming for all students, their families and their friends.”

In an attempt to clarify any confusion in the public schools regarding prom issues or religious activities at graduation, ACLU-TN prepared the briefing paper to provide school administrators and teachers with constitutionally sound guidelines.

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 that, “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. ACLU-TN’s effort comes in the wake of the highly-publicized Constance McMillen prom-discrimination case, in which a federal court ruled that Mississippi school officials violated McMillen’s First Amendment rights when they canceled the high school prom rather than let McMillen attend with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo.

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 at:

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

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release