ACLU of Illinois Hails Judge's Decision Blocking School-Sanctioned Prayer at Graduation Ceremony

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
May 17, 2001 12:00 am

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CHICAGO–The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today welcomed action by U.S. District Court Judge Joe Billy McDade to block school sanctioned prayers at this weekend’s graduation ceremony at Washington Community High School.

“Today’s ruling upheld the rights of students not to be subjected to a school sanctioned prayer at their graduation ceremony,” said Pamela Sumners, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Illinois. “”The decision also protects the rights of parents in recognizing that the appropriate place for deciding when and how children pray is in the family, not in a school system.”

The ruling, in the form of a temporary restraining order — a court order that will be in effect until a further ruling — was issued today after a hearing in the federal court in Peoria.

The hearing followed the filing of a lawsuit late yesterday afternoon by lawyers for the ACLU on behalf of the valedictorian for the 2001 Washington High School senior class and her family challenging the school’s tradition of including an invocation and benediction in the annual graduation ceremony.

Members of the senior class at Washington High School began last month to raise concerns about the legality and appropriateness of including an invocation and benediction at their graduation ceremony, scheduled for this Sunday, May 20, 2001.

A group of students met with the principal to express these concerns, but their plea to cancel the inclusion of the prayer was rejected.

Following their meetings with school officials, the students and local community and religious leaders requested assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Attorneys for the ACLU of Illinois communicated their concerns about the practice, citing two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions directly addressing the facts in this case. In addition, a member of the ACLU’s legal staff made a brief presentation to the school board in executive session on Monday evening.

The prayers at the graduation ceremony were described by Washington school officials in recent days as “student-led.” These prayers traditionally were given by students who volunteered for the assignment, according to school officials. Those delivering the invocation and benediction also were required to submit his or her draft remarks to a faculty member, who reviewed and approved the material before presentation at the graduation ceremony.

“The students involved in this dispute are to be commended for their diligence and dedication to the principle of religious tolerance,” added Sumners. “Perhaps most important, students in this case learned that they can exercise and vindicate their rights in a thoughtful, considerate and mature fashion. This has been a great civics lesson for all involved.”

The ACLU of Illinois lawsuit was brought on behalf of two students, Natasha Appenheimer — a senior scheduled to graduate on Sunday from Washington Community High School – and her younger brother Jerrod who is a sophomore at the school.

Natasha is the valedictorian of her graduating class, and was among those students who initially approached school administrators about the detrimental impact of the prayers on the student body. Natasha and Jerrod are joined in the suit by their parents, Theresa and Daniel Appenheimer.

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