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Court lifts ban on graduation prayer

By Paul J. Weber And Linda Stewart Ball

Associated Press

Published: Friday, June 3 2011 11:49 p.m. MDT

SAN ANTONIO — Public prayer will be allowed at a Texas high school graduation after a federal appeals court on Friday reversed a ban won by an agnostic family that claimed ceremony traditions such as invocations were unconstitutional.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency appeal filed by the Medina Valley Independent School District. Its San Antonio-area high school was ordered by a federal judge this week to forbid students at Saturday's graduation from asking audience members to join in prayer or bow their heads. The judge suggested that students modify their remarks to be "statements of their own beliefs."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Christa and Danny Schultz, who said watching their son receive a diploma this weekend would amount to forced religious participation. The Castroville parents argued that traditions such as invocation and benediction excluded their beliefs.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and various conservative groups, which had rallied to the defense of the school, hailed Friday's ruling by the three-judge panel.

"It should not be illegal for students to say a prayer at a graduation ceremony. Now, the federal court of appeals agrees," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who filed a brief in support of the school.

The Schultzes lawsuit was backed by the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Ayesha Khan, an attorney for the organization, said the group was "deeply" disappointed but would continue with the lawsuit to try to rid the school of promoting religion in its ceremonies.

"Students should be able to attend their graduation ceremonies without being pressured to participate in worship," Khan said. "All children should feel welcome at this important event in their lives regardless of their opinions about religion."

Her organization declined to make the Schultzes available for comment. The family had said their son may not participate in the graduation ceremony if students were allowed to pray.

The school's valedictorian, Angela Hildenbrand, had filed an intervention lawsuit that claimed she was being deprived of her right to pray for her classmates and community during her speech. Upon hearing of the court's decision, she paused for a few seconds and then said she "took the time to thank God."

"We're just so, so thrilled with the court's ruling," said Hildenbrand, who was helped by the conservative Liberty Institute, which supported the school district's appeal. "We could just not be more pleased with how it turned out."

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery's original ruling prohibited students from praying at the graduation. Biery instead said students could modify their remarks to be "statements of their own beliefs," allow them to make the sign of the cross, wear a yarmulke or hijab, or kneel to face Mecca.

Biery said the family was likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that public prayer would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The appeals court disagreed, and said the lawsuit may be partly rooted in circumstances that are no longer in the ceremony.

"For example, the school has apparently abandoned including the words 'invocation' and 'benediction,'" the panel wrote in a brief two-page ruling.

The school district did not immediately comment on the appeal.

Stewart Ball reported from Dallas.

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