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Court: Students Can't Close Graduation Speeches with Bible Verses
By Rob BostonCompelling a young person to recite a prayer or read a Bible passage every morning in a public school violates core religious liberty protections as well as usurps family rights.
Some people who advocate coercive school prayer are relentless. They’re always coming up with a new scheme to impose their preferred form of worship onto impressionable public school students.
Sometimes they even try to use children to spread religious messages in schools. Yesterday, a federal appeals court put the brakes on this latest effort to compel prayer in schools.
The case involved a student, identified in court papers as A.M., who wanted to close her middle school graduation speech with a prayer taken from the Old Testament Book of Numbers. The passage, Numbers 6:24-26, is often called the Priestly Benediction.
Officials at the Taconic Hills Central School District in Crayville, N.Y., declined to allow the girl to recite the passage, so her family lined up help from a small Religious Right-oriented law firm in Florida and sued. A federal district court rejected the suit, and now the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed.
When the A.M. v. Taconic Hills Central School District case reached the appeals court, attorneys with Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief, siding with school officials. At that time, Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser pointed out what was really going on here.
“The Religious Right is trying to use students to circumvent court rulings that have prohibited clergy and school employees from leading prayers at public school events,” Luchenitser, who drafted AU’s brief, said in a media statement. “We are asking the court to put an end to such efforts. Evangelization of captive student audiences does not belong in the public schools.”
AU’s brief pointed out that the federal courts have ruled repeatedly that the Constitution prohibits public schools from sponsoring or promoting prayer and other acts of worship. Because public schools serve children from diverse backgrounds, AU asserted, the institutions must remain neutral on matters of theology.
In a court deposition, A.M. made her religious motivation clear. She recounted studying the Priestly Benediction at church and noted that some students in her class did not believe in Jesus.
“[I]t’s my job to talk about God and see if they like it,” A.M. said in the deposition. “In God’s word, it says that I should – well, I was put on this Earth for a purpose and my purpose was to talk about God and try to get as many people to follow Him….”
That may be fine for the playground. No one would try to stop A.M. for having casual discussions with her friends about religion (as long as it doesn’t rise to level of harassment). In this case, A.M. wanted to do something much different: She wanted to hijack the apparatus of the public school system and proselytize everyone during a public event. School officials don’t have to allow that.
As a practical matter, school officials must retain control over events like graduation. Granting students an unfettered right to say anything could result in some uncomfortable situations.
But there’s a deeper issue here: For 50 years, the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have ruled that public schools must respect the rights of all students and not impose religion onto anyone. Compelling a young person to recite a prayer or read a Bible passage every morning in a public school violates core religious liberty protections as well as usurps family rights.
Advocates of coercive and mandated worship in public schools have sought to get around this in many ways. They tried to call the prayers “voluntary.” They told students who didn’t like it to leave the room. They argued that the prayers were acceptable because they were “student led.”
The courts have seen through these gambits. In the wake of this latest courtroom defeat, we can only hope (or even pray, if that’s your choice) that the people who advocated compulsory religion in public schools will give up.