Jun 29, 2012

A New York middle school student does not have a constitutional right to recite a prayer from the Bible during a graduation ceremony, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told a federal appeals court.

The case involves a student, identified in court papers as A.M., who wanted to close her middle school graduation speech with a prayer taken from the Old Testament Book of Numbers. The passage, Numbers 6:24-26, is often called the Priestly Benediction.

When officials at the Taconic Hills Central School District declined to allow the girl to recite the passage, she sued. A federal district court rejected the suit, and it’s now before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

“Students don’t have a legal right to impose their personal religious beliefs on others at graduation,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “To ensure that the ceremony is open and welcoming to all, public schools have an obligation to exclude prayers.”

Americans United’s brief points out that the federal courts have ruled repeatedly that the Constitution prohibits public schools from sponsoring or promoting prayer and other acts of worship. Because public schools serve children from diverse backgrounds, AU notes, the institutions must remain neutral on matters of theology.

“The Religious Right is trying to use students to circumvent court rulings that have prohibited clergy and school employees from leading prayers at public school events,” said AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, who wrote the brief.  “We are asking the Court to put an end to such efforts. Evangelization of captive student audiences does not belong in the public schools.”

Allowing the student to impose the prayer on others would have violated the separation of church and state, AU asserts in the brief.

AU’s brief in A.M. ex rel. McKay v. Taconic Hills Central School District points out that A.M.’s goal was to spread a specific religious message. In her deposition, she recounted studying the Priestly Benediction at church and noted that some students in her class did not believe in Jesus.

“[I]t’s my job to talk about God and see if they like it,” A.M. said in the deposition. “In God’s word it says that I should – well, I was put on this earth for a purpose and my purpose was to talk about God and try to get as many people to follow Him….”

School officials, AU argues in the brief, acted reasonably to ensure that the constitutional rights of all students and their families were protected and did not violate A.M.’s rights.