May 2008 Church & State | Featured

Imagine you are standing in a polling booth on Election Day. You’re about to cast your ballot when you see this proposal: “All city events and meetings shall open with prayer.” How odd, you think, because you’re sure the separation of church and state prohibits majority rule in religious matters.

You would be right, but that’s exactly what happened last year at four high schools in the Austin, Texas, area. The Round Rock Independent School District (RRISD) asked graduating seniors to vote on whether prayer would be included in their upcoming commencement ceremonies.

At three of the schools, the vote for prayer passed without much fanfare or interest – only 188 of 435 seniors cast a ballot at one school. Graduating seniors at Westwood High School, however, voted not to include the prayer.

Westwood officials apparently thought their students had made a mistake. Assistant Superintendent Rosena Malone had students vote again at a mandatory graduation practice a few days later. Students had four choices: “benediction,” “no benediction,” “moment of silence” and “I don’t care.”

“No benediction” won with 38.6 percent of the vote. The Westwood students had made their objection clear, but prayers were included in graduation ceremonies at McNeil, Round Rock and Stony Point High Schools. Graduation day came and went, yet still parents and students wondered why the school had the authority to include the prayers in the first place.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit against RRISD in August 2007 on behalf of six local parents and a former student. Officials at the four RRISD high schools, Americans United alleged in Does v. Round Rock Independent School District, organized, oversaw and attempted to manipulate the election. (See “Round Rock Rumble,” October 2007 Church & State.)

Last month, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks approved a settlement ending the practice.

The settlement stipulates that “RRISD and its officers, employees, and agents shall not hold or conduct any election or vote by RRISD students on whether a prayer, benediction, invocation or other religious communication should be included in any graduation ceremony of any RRISD school…” Sparks also retains the power to enforce the settlement’s terms.

The school’s prayer policy was based on a 1992 appellate court decision called Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, which said public school students could elect to include non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayers in their commencement ceremonies.

That holding, however, was effectively overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000). In that decision, a six-justice majority held that the District’s policy permitting student-initiated, student-led prayer over the public address system at football games violated the separation of church and state.

In his opinion for the high court, Justice John Paul Stevens concluded that allowing schools to adopt policies that purposefully or effectively impose the majority’s religion on others “encourages divisiveness along religious lines and threatens [to coerce] those students not desiring to participate in the religious exercise.”

The plaintiffs in the Round Rock case, as in many cases where religious minorities’ rights are at stake, know how true that is. The parents and former student who sued RRISD remain anonymous in court documents because they fear their success could evoke their neighbors’ ire.

AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan praised the settlement.

“It’s a significant victory because it clears up the misconception that the majority rules when it comes to religion,” Khan said. “This ruling should send a clear message to school districts.”

The agreement also means the Round Rock school district won’t waste time and taxpayer dollars defending an indefensible policy.

Plaintiff Lisa Jones (not her real name) was pleased about that.

“I’m really happy it settled,” she told Church & State. “Round Rock shouldn’t have been doing this in the first place.”

Lauren Smith has served for three years as a communications assistant at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. She resigned this month to attend the University of Michigan Law School.