October 2007 Church & State | Featured

When word started to circulate that high school seniors in Round Rock, Texas, would vote on whether to have prayers during the graduation ceremony, Lisa Jones’ first reaction was surprise – and then anger.

“I was really shocked,” said Jones, a parent in the school district. “I thought we had prevented this kind of stuff, but the school officials said they would do this and even said they had consulted a lawyer. I really thought there had been lawsuits to prevent this. At the time I thought, ‘They can’t do this. This is illegal.’”

Jones’ instincts were right: There have been lawsuits to prevent this. According to the Supreme Court, the practice of allowing the majority to impose worship on the minority through a vote in a public school is unconstitutional – but officials in Round Rock plowed ahead anyway.

“It looks like all of our schools will have an invocation…,” Assistant Superintendent Rosena Malone wrote in a May 23 memo. She went on to outline the district’s procedures for including prayers in the event.

But Malone spoke too soon. Some seniors at Round Rock’s four high schools had voted on whether to include a prayer during the event. Of those who voted, the majority was pro-prayer at three schools, but many seniors at Westwood High had other ideas. They voted down prayer.

Unfazed, school officials scheduled a re-vote. But the soon-to-be-graduates at Westwood either didn’t get the administration’s message or chose to ignore it. Once again, they rejected having prayer at the ceremony.

Graduation came and went with three high schools including an invocation while Westwood did not. But the experience left lingering questions among Jones and many parents and students: Why was a public school system engineering prayers in the first place, and since when is it legal for a majority to vote to impose religious observances on everyone?

Now those questions have formed the basis of a new lawsuit by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. AU attorneys, unable to persuade officials in Round Rock to drop what the organization maintains is a deeply flawed and unconstitutional prayer policy, filed suit against the school district Aug. 20 in federal court. Jones – the name is a pseudonym – is one of the plaintiffs.

Americans United contends that the Round Rock Independent School District’s policy of allowing students to vote on whether to include prayer in its graduation ceremonies violates the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

Six parents and a former student are serving as plaintiffs in the case, which has been filed before Judge Sam Sparks in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. Mindful that legal challenges to school prayer can bring out the worst in some people, the seven are anonymous in court documents.

Jones told Church & State that her community is very diverse, and that the school district’s plan to allow a majority to decide religious questions makes no sense. Noting that many of her neighbors come from Vietnam and India, Jones remarked, “We are definitely not a little white bread suburban community any more – not at all. We are a very changing community here.”

In a press statement, Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, echoed that view.

“Graduation ceremonies should welcome all students, regardless of their beliefs about religion,” Lynn said. “Religion is personal, and decisions about it should never be the subject of a ‘majority rules’ vote.”

The dispute over school prayer is nothing new in Round Rock, a growing district near Austin that serves more than 39,000 students in Travis and William­son counties. As the Does v. Round Rock Independent School District lawsuit points out, the district has a long history of promoting graduation prayer. It notes that in 1993, media reports indicated the issue grew so heated that a superintendent was dismissed.

The American Civil Liberties Union considered litigation in 1993, although a last-minute compromise avoided courtroom action. Skirmishes continued throughout the 1990s, and in 2002 the district approved a new policy dealing with prayers at commencement.

The new policy states that the district will allow graduating seniors to select a “student volunteer” to deliver “nonsectarian, nonproselytizing invocations and benedictions for the purpose of solemnizing their graduation ceremonies.”

The district based the policy on a 1992 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case called Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School Dis­trict. Since then, however, the core finding of the Clear Creek decision has been undercut by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2000, the high court struck down majority-rules prayer before public school football games, ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that schools may not adopt policies that allow a majority to impose religious worship on the minority.

“Such a system,” observed Justice John Paul Stevens, “encourages divisiveness along religious lines and threatens the imposition of coercion upon those students not desiring to participate in a religious exercise.”

In its court filing, AU charges that education officials in Round Rock are meddling in the religious lives of students. It notes that school officials “crafted the ballot and orchestrated and carried out ballot delivery, collection, and tabulation.”

Elsewhere, the AU legal complaint notes, “School officials screen and edit the prayer, provide the sound system through which it is delivered, select and make available the venue for the presentation, determine the order of the events, generally (but not always) list the ‘invocation’ on the official program of ceremonies, and otherwise orchestrate the presentation.”

The issue roiled the community throughout the month of May. Interest­ingly, it was mainly adults who fought over it. The graduating seniors were somewhat indifferent to the matter. Given a chance to vote, most skipped the election. At Round Rock High School, for example, of 435 seniors, fewer than half – 188 students – cast a ballot.

Turnout at the district’s largest high school, Stony Point, was not much better. Of the 692 seniors, only 365 voted – 184 for prayer, 98 against and 83 saying they had no opinion.

Many people in the community, meanwhile, were adamant that prayer should occur. One school board member, Vivian Sullivan, visited a Christian fundamentalist Web site called www.tothesource.org and wrote a message about her efforts to include prayer in the graduation ceremonies.

“Maybe we as a nation need to be more concerned with offending God than offending other people!” she wrote. During a May 17 board meeting, Sulli­van downplayed objections to prayer, remarking, “We need a generic invocation asking God for guidance…. If you’re an atheist, then just humor us.”

Superintendent Jesus Chavez later posted a message on the district’s Web site announcing that three of the district’s four high schools – Round Rock, Stony Point and McNeil – would have an invocation but that Westwood would not, since its seniors had voted prayer down.

But again, members of the community and some students complained. In reaction, Assistant Superintendent Ma­lone convened a re-vote at Westwood on May 23. Officials distributed pre-printed ballots to seniors, giving them the option of voting for “benediction,” “no benediction,” “moment of silence” or “I don’t care.” This vote took place during a mandatory graduation practice, so most seniors participated. “No benediction” won with 38.6 percent of the vote.

At this point, officials gave up on Westwood and moved on to approving the prayers at the three other schools. They did not hesitate to heavily edit and even re-write the invocations that were submitted to them in advance. At McNeil High, for example, the invocation that was ultimately delivered bore scant resemblance to the draft originally submitted.

All of these activities – engineering elec­tions, urging students to vote for prayer and examining the prayers delivered – involve school officials in the reli­gi­­­ous lives of students, AU attorneys argue.

“A reasonable, objective student or parent, aware of these facts, as well as the history of the graduation-prayer policy and graduation prayers would conclude that the District has endorsed, and continues to endorse, religion,” reads AU’s legal complaint.

AU refrained from filing legal action until all other options were exhausted. On May 21, Ayesha N. Khan, Americans United’s legal director, sent a four-page letter to Chavez, the four principals at the district’s high schools as well as every member of the school board, advising them that their actions were constitutionally dubious.

Chavez responded two days later with a short letter insisting that the district’s attorneys had assured him that the prayer policy is constitutional.

Khan said she believes the district has relied on faulty advice.

“The Supreme Court has been clear on this question,” Khan said. “‘Majority-rules’ prayer usurps parents’ and students’ rights. I’m confident the courts will issue a ruling correcting the district and assuring that graduation at Round Rock is welcoming to all.”