Monday, January 30, 2012


Although it has been nearly fifty years since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decisions removing state-sponsored prayers in public schools, it still remains hot topic today. A lawsuit was filed in Texas on June 1st 2011 by an agnostic family against Medina Valley HighSchool.  The Schultz family urged the courts to ban prayers at their son’s graduation ceremony claiming that “the inclusion of prayers at Medina Valley High School graduation ceremonies violates the Established Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”. They also claimed their son would “suffer irreparable harm if the prayers are not enjoined”. The U.S. District Court Judge Fred Biery ruled in favor of the Schultz family ordering the school district to remove the words “invocation” and “benediction” and replacing them with “opening remarks” and “closing remarks” on the program for the ceremonies. The students and speakers were also ordered to reframe from asking those in the audience to “stand”, “join in prayer” or “bow their heads”. The Attorney for the Schultz family argued that the prayers at the graduation ceremonies were not student-initiated, but government –sponsored, and that it put pressure on audience members to participate against their beliefs. Following Judge Beery’s ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed an emergency appeal at the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in support of allowing prayers at the graduation ceremonies. A Dallas-based Liberty Institute also filed a lawsuit on behalf of Angela Hildenbrand,(the valedictorian that was set to pray as part of the speech she had prepared )  in Castroville, Texas, asking the 5th Circuit Court to overturn Judge Biery’s ruling before the school’s commencement ceremony that Saturday. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ended up dissolving Judge Biery’s injunction, ruling that the Schultz family had not persuaded panal of judges “that the individual prayers or other remarks to be given by students at graduation are, in fact, school-sponsored”.
Religion and government in the United States are governed by the first Amendment to the constitution. The main constitutional issues that come into play in this situation involves: The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause (together known as the “religious clause”) of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Here is the language of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion (“establishment clause”), or prohibiting the free exercise (“free exercise clause”) thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Although the First Amendment forbids religious activity sponsored by the government in cases such as this, I believe it’s important to make a distinction between government speech that endorses religion, which the Established Clause forbids, and a private speech which endorses religion, which the Free Speech and Exercise Clause protect. The prayer was not planned to be lead by a public school teacher or official, but by a student.  Students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Tinker v. Des Monines indep. Community Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506(1969). Previously in a similar case the Supreme Court has made clear that “private religious speech” is fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression. “Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd. V. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753, 760 (1995). In this case I believe the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals made the right ruling by overturning the initial ban by Judge Fred Biery. Valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand’s  speech and prayer, is a “privately initiated religious expression” and as such is protected by her First Amendment rights.
The main/landmark cases from the US Supreme Court seem to be
1. Engel v. Vitale (1962)
2. Wallace v. Jaffree(1985)
3. Lee v. Weisman (1992)
4. Santa Fe Independent School v. Doe (2000)


kathryn y. said...

While I find this a petty issue for a family to get heated about, I understand that they were exercising their right to freedom of speech. Where I am annoyed is in te families statement that their son would "suffer irreparable harm if the prayers are not enjoined." The fact that they chose the words suffer & harm are what frustrate me. While the audience of the ceremony is encouraged to join in the prayers, in no sense are people enjoined to partake. Just as this family is attesting to prayer in the ceremony, they too can attest to partaking in the activity. I am not so convinced that they family was making these claims because they fear that their son may become "religious" which speaks volumes for their motives -- though this is just my observation of what is going on.

Angela S. said...

I think a good test for cases like this would be to replace Christian with Satanic. Had the valedictorian planned on reciting a Satanic prayer would she have been challenged by school officials? If the answer is yes then I believe that the issue does fit under promoting one religion over others. Or imagine for a moment that the student in question was a black student who had gotten word that the valedictorian was going to give a speech that included a section on white supremacy. Would we still be supporting her right to free speech at a public school function? To some it may not be a big deal and I would not have picked the same words they did, but it does have a lasting effect when you spend your life being told that something about you is wrong and that you need to change.

Anne G said...

I suppose that if the 5th Circuit Court were true to its ruling, then Angela's point that a Satanic or white supremacist valedictorian would also have free speech protection would be correct. However, no one has the absolute right to make their claims at the expense of "peaceful assembly," "free exercise" or "freedom of speech" by saying something to incite harm, e.g. others should rise up and beat to death all blacks and non-Satanic worshipers in their midst.

Angela S. said...

But there is a difference between inciting violence and doing something like. “Hail Satan for he gives us the wisdom to be independent. The wisdom to stand up and take control or our lives and move forward, responsible for the educations that we will be receiving and the careers that we chose.” Alternately a white supremacist would not have to incite violence they could simply give a speech that talked exclusively about the positive contributions of white members of society, making it explicit that they are purposefully not talking about the positive contributions of any other ethnicity. I agree that in a public space freedom of speech is important, but I think the line is drawn at an event associated with a public school. I personally think that it should be all or nothing. Either both should be acceptable or neither should be acceptable.

Kyle I. said...

I think I have to agree with Angela about this case. While I think the plaintiff is dramatically overstating the level of emotional and mental harm that would be experienced as a result of exposure to the prayers, allowing the planned reading of an "invocation" and "benediction" (both forms of public address with definite Christian connotations) would, even implicitly, demonstrate a public school, and thus government, endorsement of specifically Christian language. While this prayer is student-led, it's certainly premeditated and even printed on the graduation program, and thus tacitly authorized by school officials. I believe the public school administrators have a duty to ensure that such a significant ceremony as a high school graduation is free from uncomfortable, insensitive, or offensive language so that each and every student, regardless of religious affiliation, can participate in graduation without reservation or regret.

Amisha P said...

I think I agree with the agnostic parent on this case because she says that the school officials regular pray to god during sporting events, over the intercom, and other events. This bothers me because a public school is promoting religion. It is a different matter if students are praying on their own at these events, but if the school officials are leading prayer then there is a problem. If the Valedictorian decided to lead the prayer herself without the school telling her to then she is protecting under the first amendment. If the school officials asked her to include a prayer in her speech, then agnostic family should have won the case.