August 14, 2002

West VA School District Ends Graduation Prayer Policy; Student's Lawsuit "Educated" Officials

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CHARLESTON, WV - In response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, school board officials in Kanawha Valley today rescinded a policy allowing school-sponsored prayer at graduation ceremonies and agreed to promote respect for religious freedom. 

"Today's settlement is a victory for the families of Kanawha Valley," said Andrew Schneider, Executive Director of the ACLU of West Virginia. "Children whose religious beliefs are different from those in the majority will no longer feel like outsiders at their own graduation." 

The Superintendent of Kanawha County Schools, Ron Duerring, agreed in the settlement to immediately abolish the district-wide policy that permitted schools to allow student-led prayer at their graduation ceremonies. "Such an outcome is best for the school community and pays proper respect to constitutional requirements," Duerring said in a statement issued by the school district. 

The settlement came in response to a lawsuit filed on May 29 by the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) on behalf of Tyler Deveny, a senior who objected to the planned prayer at his graduation ceremony from St. Albans High School. Deveny called the prayer "an exercise in ostracism." 

The day after the lawsuit was filed, the ACLU and AU won a temporary restraining order blocking the school from allowing the prayer at the graduation ceremony. 

"Tyler Deveny exercised an important constitutional right to seek redress for alleged violations of the Constitution," Duerring said in his statement. "Deveny's actions have served to educate Kanawha County Schools and the community as a whole about constitutional requirements." 

Kanawha County's district-wide policy permitted schools to have a student-led, non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayer at their graduation as long as it was voted on by the graduating seniors and submitted to and approved by the principal prior to the ceremony. 

As part of the terms of the settlement, known as a consent decree, the school board will review Kanawha County curriculum and professional staff development programs to ensure adequate education and training on First Amendment issues, particularly the separation of church and state and freedom of religion. 

Thomas J. Gillooly, who served as the ACLU's cooperating attorney, filed the lawsuit in United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver, Jr. approved today's settlement.

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