ACLU of Nebraska Sues Over Graduation Prayer; Family That Complained Fears Retaliation

Affiliate: ACLU of Nebraska
November 29, 2001 12:00 am

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LINCOLN, NE–Saying that school-sponsored prayer unconstitutionally entangles government with religion and divides communities, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska today filed a federal lawsuit against a local school that allowed an official to say a prayer at graduation ceremonies.

The civil rights lawsuit stems from a May 2000 graduation ceremony at Norfolk High School at which school board member James Scheer led the assembly in a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Norfolk family identified only as “”John Doe et al.”” because of open hostility toward them in comments on local talk shows and in letters to newspapers.

“”A school board has no right to force a religious preference or views on the captive audience of a graduation,”” said Timothy Butz, Executive Director of the ACLU of Nebraska. “”The school is, in effect, dividing the community into those who accept the preferred religious views and those who do not. We need look only to the Balkans to see the results of dividing a society along religious lines.””

The ACLU initially contacted school officials prior to ceremony to warn them that the planned prayer violated the constitution. The school then announced that the scheduled prayer had been removed from the program, but allowed Scheer to speak even though he was not listed on the program. Scheer was permitted time to address those assembled only because of his official position and he used his official position to offer a prayer, the ACLU said in court papers.

Following the graduation prayer incident, the ACLU made attempts to resolve the matter on behalf of the family. Today’s lawsuit was filed after attempts to resolve the matter were unsuccessful.

“”Courts at all levels have held that graduation prayers offered by school officials are unconstitutional. Apparently the elected school board members and others in Norfolk believe that the Constitution does not apply within their city limits, otherwise they would not have engaged in such conduct,”” said Tim Butz, Executive Director of the ACLU of Nebraska. “”The mere fact that it is ‘tradition’ to have such prayer does not mean that the practice is lawful.””

The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Lincoln and is being handled by Herb and Dan Friedman of Lincoln, who are serving as the ACLU of Nebraska’s cooperating attorneys.

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