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Federal Judge Declines To Block Graduation Prayer

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In a preliminary ruling, a federal judge has refused to bar two Michigan high schools from using religious prayers at their graduation ceremonies.

In Bruce Stein and Martha Dahlinger v. Plainwell Community School, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Gibson rejected arguments by the American Civil Liberties Union that the use of benedictions at a public-school commencement ceremony violates the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Judge Gibson ruled that the use of an opening prayer at a commencement ceremony lends solemnity to the proceedings and thus has a significant secular purpose. The judge ruled that the individual facts in the case did not violate the U.S. Supreme Court's three-part test to determine whether a religious practice breaches the separation of church and state suggested by the First Amendment.

No Religious Goal Found

Judge Gibson ruled that since the benediction prayer is only a small part of a much larger ceremony and contains only a fleeting reference to the deity, its use at a commencement ceremony is not unconstitutional. In a written opinion, the judge found that "the graduation is not part of the education program of the school."

"Because the audience does not attend the graduation with the ex-pectation of receiving instruction, religious or otherwise, the court finds it difficult to believe there is any danger of the school being perceived as attempting to advance religion," he said.

The case was argued for the civil-liberties union by Robert A. Sedler, a professor of law at Wayne State University in Detroit, on behalf of the parents of two seniors attending the Plainwell Community High School in Allegan County and Portage Central High School in Kalamazoo County.

Mr. Sedler said the aclu plans to bring the suit to trial in order to get a final ruling on the issue.

Opposite Ruling

Judge Gibson's ruling came on the heels of a decision by another federal judge earlier in the month that barred the use of prayers at graduation ceremonies in an Iowa school district.

In Robert Graham and Rebecca Graham v. Central Community6School District of Decatur County, U.S. District Judge Harold Vietor ruled that the use of benedictions at public commencement ceremonies served no significant secular purpose, was primarily religious in nature, and thus was unconstitutional.

According to Lawrence Murphy, the lawyer for Portage High School in the Michigan case, Judge Gibson quoted extensively from Judge Vietor's decision, pointing out that the facts in the two cases were different.--nh

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