A federal court today ordered a Texas public school district not to include prayers in its June 4 commencement ceremony, in response to a lawsuit brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Representing a local family, Americans United on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the Medina Valley Independent School District in Castroville over the district’s plans to include official prayer during the ceremony.
“The law here is clear: No school-sponsored prayer during commencement,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Graduation is an important rite of passage for young people, and all students should feel welcome at it, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe about God.”
Americans United filed the lawsuit on behalf of Christa and Danny Schultz, who have two children in the district, including a son who will graduate this year. Members of the Schultz family are agnostics and do not believe official prayers should be part of a school-sponsored event.
Several months ago, prior to filing the Schultz v. Medina Valley Independent School District lawsuit, Americans United wrote to school officials and warned them that they were in violation of the law. District officials ignored the letter.
U.S. District Judge Samuel Frederick Biery Jr. heard oral arguments on the matter this morning. During the hearing, school district officials admitted that they planned to include an invocation and benediction during the event.
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.
AU maintained that district officials were in clear violation of the law. They noted that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 in the case Lee v. Weisman that public schools may not impose prayer and religious worship onto students and their families during commencement ceremonies. In addition, the high court in 2000 ruled against “student-led” and “student-initiated” prayers before public school football games in a case from Texas called Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.
AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan argued the case before Biery. She was assisted in preparing it by AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser. Donald H. Flanary III of Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley in San Antonio served as local counsel.
Khan urged other parents in the district to contact Americans United at (202) 466-3234 if they have concerns about religious activity during commencement.
"If you have school-aged children and are troubled by the district's prayer practices, please contact my office to explore the possibility of joining the lawsuit on an anonymous basis," Khan said.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.