Graduation Vindication

Lawsuit Settlement Bars Texas School District From Promoting Religion

When Corwyn Schultz first complained more than two years ago about his school district’s violation of students’ constitutional rights due to school-sanctioned Christian prayers, he had no idea what he was getting into.

“I still get remarks and looks, but that’s how some people are,” Corwyn told Church & State. “It’s Texas and people hold to their God very strongly.”

Corwyn, his older brother Trevor and their parents, Danny and Christa, faced significant backlash from many in their small Texas community, and even Gov. Rick Perry, when they challenged school-approved prayers at Corwyn’s graduation ceremony. Through all of that, though, Corwyn and his family showed remarkable grace.

“I don’t hold [the negative sentiments] against them,” Corwyn said. “They just didn’t really understand what was going on. I think they were just ignorant.”

“We appreciate our friends who support us,” Danny and Christa told Church & State. “It may be harder on them than it was on us.”

Despite all the negativity, the Schultzes, who are agnostic, never gave up. Their saga came to an end in February when Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which served as legal counsel for the Schultzes, settled a lawsuit over the school-sponsored religious activity at the Medina Valley Independent School District in Castroville, Texas.

The suit, Schultz v. Medina Valley Independent School District, sought a long-term solution to religious practices at Medina Valley High School. These included official prayers during the school’s graduation ceremony as well as prayers over the intercom, before sporting events, in after-school extra-curricular activities and even during class time. There were also many religious displays throughout the school. For example, a poster of the “Cowboy 10 Commandments” on a classroom wall featured rules such as “Put nothin’ before God,” “Git yourself to Sunday meeting” and “No foolin’ around with another fellow’s gal.”

Although the settlement came after Corwyn and his brother had graduated high school, it was a victory for church-state separation that will help to ensure freedom from religious indoctrination for future students.

“The Schultz family was brave to stand up for church-state separation in the face of strong community opposition,” said AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper, who served as lead plaintiffs’ counsel. “The policy changes made by the Medina Valley School District could not and would not have happened without their courageous efforts.”

Under the terms of the settlement, district officials, administrators, teachers, staff and other employees cannot initiate, solicit or direct prayers, nor can they join students in prayers, proselytize or invite others to engage in activities of this type.

School district personnel are prohibited from displaying crosses, religious images, religious quotations, Bibles or religious texts or other religious icons or artifacts on the walls, hallways and other common areas at the school. The district will not be permitted to invite speakers, including government officials or community leaders, whom it has reason to believe will proselytize or promote religion during their remarks.

Beyond that, the settlement also requires that the Medina Valley High School student handbook be amended to contain a section on students’ rights to religious freedom, including the importance of respect for and tolerance of students from all backgrounds and specific procedures for registering a complaint with district personnel about violations.

The district will provide annual training to all district personnel who interact with students or parents or supervise those who do. A range of topics related to students’ rights and church-state separation will be covered.

“The settlement contains a host of specific measures to address the issues that we were most concerned about,” Lipper said.

Corwyn said he was “very happy” with the settlement, and he praised Americans United for helping him speak up for church-state separation.

“Americans United was helpful by giving me a voice,” he said. “Without AU, I would have been brushed aside as just another complaining kid. Thanks to Americans United, when I complained to the school district, I wasn’t just someone who didn’t like what they were doing.”

Danny and Christa also expressed their gratitude for AU’s help.

“Everyone was super supportive, and the knowledge and skill they brought to the process was impressive,” Christa said.

“We would like to thank everyone at AU from our local chapter to [AU Executive Director] Barry Lynn,” Danny said. “Without AU, we would have been unable to achieve this settlement. The Schultzes are forever grateful.”

Corwyn and his family were not the only targets of scorn because of their involvement in this school prayer case. In the lawsuit’s early stages, U.S. District Chief Judge Fred Biery ruled in AU’s favor on a restraining order to block student prayers at the 2011 commencement, and as a result of his stance, faced his own public opinion trial of sorts.

Biery was condemned by many, and some even prayed for him to die. He requested and received protection from the U.S. Marshals Service.

Some national figures even joined in the verbal assault on Biery. In October 2011 while speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich spoke of his desire to remove judges from the bench who don’t rule the way he wants.

The former House speaker said judges should be brought before Congress and forced to defend their decisions.

“I think…Congress [should] bring in Judge Biery from San Antonio and say to him, ‘Explain to us your rationale,’” observed Gingrich. “‘By what right would you dictate speech to the American people?’ If judges knew that when they were radically wrong, they’d be hauled in front of Congress, it would immediately have a sobering effect about how much power they have.”

Gingrich, however, is not an attorney, and actual legal experts have come to Biery’s defense, noting that the judge urged a settlement of the case. That is “not the action of an activist judge,” St. Mary’s School of Law (San Antonio) Professor Michael Ariens said, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

As the case drew to a close, Biery weighed in on the hostility, displaying a mix of grace, humor and anger.

In a message he included in his order approving the settlement, the judge said, “To those Christians who have venomously and vomitously cursed the Court family and threatened bodily harm and assassination: In His name, I forgive you. To those who have prayed for my death: Your prayers will someday be answered, as inevitability trumps probability. To those in the executive and legislative branches of government who have demagogued this case for their own political goals: You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Biery used a similar approach in his discussion of the lawsuit. He insisted that the case was not about the right to pray but about the proper relationship between government and religion.

“Does the United States Constitution allow a government entity elected by the majority to use its power to tax and its agents and employees to support and promote a particular religious viewpoint not held by a minority?” he asked.

The judge also observed that: “Any American can pray, silently or verbally, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, in private as Jesus taught or in large public events as Mohammed instructed.”

Biery noted that “reasonable minds differ on the Constitution as a living, evolving document or one to be interpreted strictly as the Framers originally intended.”

What is not up for debate, he continued, is the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution on religion. He quoted Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine in support of church-state separation.

Biery observed that Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution,” argued, “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe which religion we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”

The judge also discussed the role religion played in the founding of Castroville, calling the town an “ironic venue” for church-state separation litigation. He said the town’s namesake, Henri Castro, helped Alsatians leave Europe because there was no system in place protecting minorities from the majority.

Moving on in his historical survey of religious freedom, Biery asserted that religion has often been the cause of considerable bloodshed when it is combined with government power and insisted that the Supreme Court has barred public schools from taking sides in religious conflicts.

“If government-run public schools also joined hands with religion and had the power to impose religious views, questions arise: Which holy books and prayers would be preferred?” he asked in his commentary on the case.

The Schultzes began their fight a bit before lawyers got involved. As reported in the July/August 2011 issue of Church & State, Corwyn, with the encouragement of his parents, filed a complaint with his public school district over his high school principal’s behavior back in 2009. He did not receive a response, leading his parents to write a letter to both the principal and the superintendent.

Three weeks later, the principal apologized to Corwyn. Things were quiet for a time after that, but then problems arose. When Trevor graduated in June 2009, the Schultz family attended the ceremony – but chose not to stand during student prayers.

“One lady next to us visibly began to pray harder for us, squinting up and saying the words faster,” Danny told Church & State in 2011. “Some people got up and moved. We were scorned and mocked just because we chose to stay silent and not stand.”

In 2010, the Schultz family contacted Americans United about various religious activities at Medina Valley. During fall 2010, AU wrote a letter to the school district, asking it to discontinue these practices. The school offered no response, and 10 days prior to graduation, Corwyn learned there would still be official prayers at the ceremony.

On May 25, Americans United informed the school district that if school-sponsored prayers weren’t cancelled, a lawsuit would be filed. Officials responded that they would continue with the prayers as planned.

The following day, Americans United’s attorneys filed suit, seeking a temporary restraining order barring the district from sponsoring prayers during graduation and a permanent injunction barring official prayers at future school events.

Guided by precedent, including two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Judge Biery ordered that official prayers be removed from the ceremony and said that students must be told that they may not attempt to lead their peers in prayer or other religious activities.

That victory was short lived. The school district appealed Biery’s decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a brief on its behalf. At the local level, residents of Castroville, a predominantly Christian community of 3,500 about 26 miles west of San Antonio, rallied to support the school.

“We want to be clear; it’s one parent’s position,” Assistant Superintendent Chris Martinez said. “We don’t believe, as a school district, that we have done anything wrong.”

The Liberty Institute, a Religious Right legal outfit, also filed a motion for intervention on behalf of Medina Valley High School valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand, arguing that the ruling censored her, even though as the chosen class speaker, she was speaking on behalf of the school.

On the evening of June 3, 2011, the night before the graduation, the 5th Circuit reversed the district court ruling, allowing school-sponsored prayer at the ceremony. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) praised the decision as did Gov. Perry.

With so little time remaining before Corwyn’s graduation, there was no opportunity for Americans United to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Corwyn chose not to attend his graduation due to safety concerns for him and his family. The Schultzes had their own private celebration at home.

Despite the setback, neither Americans United nor the Schultz family gave up, and eventually AU was able to negotiate a long-term solution.

“I’m very happy about the settlement,” Corwyn said. “It was exactly what we asked for almost three years ago.”

The settlement also sends a message to school districts that allow officially sanctioned prayers and other religious activities.

“It places the school district under court supervision for the next decade,” said AU’s Lipper, “and imposes a variety of specific requirements that touch on multiple aspects of school operations. Other school districts paying attention will hopefully see this as a reason to be cautious.”

For Corwyn, the outcome of the case will have a positive, lasting impact.

“If there is someone out there who is in the same situation I was in, they shouldn’t be afraid to step out of their comfort zone,” he said. “Even with the backlash, it’s really worth it. There will be times when you’re sad, but in the end it’s worth it.”