Appeals Court Lifts Ban on Graduation Prayers

By Mark Walsh — June 06, 2011 2 min read
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Student speakers and others offered numerous prayers at a Texas high school graduation on Saturday after a federal appeals court dissolved a lower court’s order that would have prohibited organized prayers at the ceremony.

“Medina Valley graduates hear prayers aplenty,” the San Antonio Express-News said in its coverage of the ceremonies at the high school in the Medina Valley Independent School District.

A local family had sued the school district late last month with the help of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, challenging the district’s plans to include a student invocation and benediction at the graduation as an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Samuel Frederick Biery, Jr., sided with the family, citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.

“Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the inclusion of prayers at Medina Valley High School graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Judge Biery said in a June 1 temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. “Plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm if the prayers are not enjoined.”

The judge ordered the school district to instruct students and other speakers not to present a prayer, including barring them from asking audience members to stand, bow their heads, join in prayer, or say “Amen.” The judge said the student speakers could discuss their personal religious beliefs.

The school district appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, where it was supported by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and the Liberty Institute, which filed a brief on behalf of Medina Valley High valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand.

On Friday, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit issued a short opinion and order dissolving Judge Biery’s TRO and preliminary injunction.

“We are not persuaded that plaintiffs have shown that they are substantially likely to prevail on the merits, particularly on the issue that the individual prayers or other remarks to be given by students at graduation are, in fact, school-sponsored,” the panel said in its unanimous order in Schultz v. Medina Valley Independent School District.

The fact that the lawsuit would continue was likely little comfort to the family challenging the graduation prayers, and the Express-News reported that Corwyn Schultz, a senior at the high school, did not attend his graduation. Among those offering prayers during the ceremony were Hildenbrand, the valedictorian, and state Rep. John V. Garza, a Republican from San Antonio, who reportedly said, “The judge of all judges commands us to pray.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.