Federal Judge OKs School Prayer Settlement, Answers Critics

By Mark Walsh — February 09, 2012 3 min read
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A federal district judge on Thursday approved the settlement of a lawsuit over the promotion of religion by a Texas school district, and he sharply answered criticism from a current and a former Republican presidential candidate over an earlier ruling in the case.

“To those in the executive and legislative branches of government who have demagogued this case for their own political goals: You should be ashamed of yourselves,” U.S. District Judge Samuel Frederick Biery Jr., of San Antonio, said in a court document.

The judge didn’t specify to whom he was responding, but GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich has a position paper on “Bringing the Courts Back Under the Constitution” that criticizes at length Biery and the prayer case in the Medina Valley Independent School District. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has left the GOP presidential race, also criticized the judge.

The Medina Valley case started last spring when a local family sued the 3,500-student school district to challenge, as an unconstitutional government establishment of religion, the district’s plans to include a student invocation and benediction at a high school graduation ceremony.

Biery issued a June 1 temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction barring the district from offering prayers at the ceremony, holding that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that such prayers would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, stepped in and dissolved the temporary restraining order, holding in an emergency ruling that it wasn’t convinced that student prayers at the graduation ceremony would be school-sponsored. The ceremony at Median Valley High School on June 4 went on, with numerous prayers offered by student speakers and others, and Corwyn Schultz, a member of the family challenging the prayers, skipped his own graduation.

That didn’t stop the Gingrich camp Gingrich from targeting Biery for criticism. The position paper, dated Oct. 7, said Biery’s original decision “is the antireligious judicial thought police at work here in America.”

“As a first step toward reining in out-of-control, anti-religious bigotry on the federal
bench, Congress can start by impeaching and removing Biery from office,” says the position paper, which lists as “editor’” Gingrich aide Vince Haley. “And if that fails, Congress can seek to abolish his office. The American people would be better off without a judge whose anti-religious extremism leads him to ban a high school valedictorian from saying even the word ‘prayer.’”

This week, the Medina Valley district reached a settlement with the plaintiffs, who were respresented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The settlement curtails some alleged promotion of religion by school officials, but specifies that the district may permit student speakers to pray as part of graduation ceremonies.

Both the school district and Americans United issued statements claiming victory.

Meanwhile, Biery issued an unusual 18-page appendix to the settlement in which he outlined the history of religious freedom in America and discussed the importance of the separation of church and state, as well as a separate order approving the settlement with a “personal statement” that included his point about those who have “demogogued” the case.

In addition to that statement (quoted above), Biery said, “To those Christians who have venomously and vomitously cursed the court family and threatened bodily harm and assassination: In His name, I forgive you. To those who have prayed for my death: Your prayers will someday be answered, as inevitably [sic] trumps probability.”

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