A federal appeals court has upheld a lower-court ruling finding an Arkansas school district in contempt of a 2004 court order not to orchestrate or supervise prayers at school graduation or baccalaureate ceremonies.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, found that a baccalaureate service at De Valls Bluff High School in spring 2005 clearly violated a federal district court’s injunction.
“The [school district] contends that the baccalaureate service was a student-organized event, but there was ample evidence on the record to demonstrate that school employees were involved with almost every aspect of the service’s preparation,” the court panel said in a unanimous opinion on April 4.
The court noted that two school employees serving as senior-class sponsors met with students during school hours to plan the baccalaureate service. They also supervised and advised the planning; produced and copied the program for the service, using school resources; and handed out copies of the program at the service.
But the court stopped short of imposing a penalty on the 5,900-student De Valls Bluff school district, beyond a warning to desist or face more severe sanctions.
Steve Warnock, a former teacher at De Valls Bluff High who had attended the service, had asked the courts to fine the school district. Mr. Warnock brought the initial lawsuit two years ago, after he attended mandatory faculty meetings and compulsory in-service training at which prayers were held.
A federal district court had barred the school district from offering prayers at any meeting that Mr. Warnock was required to attend. On appeal, however, the 8th Circuit court barred the district from engaging in religious activity involving any teachers, not just Mr. Warnock.
In the 2004 appellate opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Morris S. Arnold wrote: “We believe that it is the government’s endorsement of a particular religious message that constitutes the constitutional violation here.”