Federal Appeals Court Rules Unconstitutional Religious Exercises in Florida Public Schools

May 12, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, May 12, 1999

MIAMI — A federal appeals court has ruled that school boards may not permit religious exercises during public high school graduations.

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit came in an ACLU of Florida lawsuit — Adler et al v. The Duval County School Board — filed in May 1998 on behalf of several students who attend public schools and their parents.

The students and their parents contended in their lawsuit that the school board’s policies, which permit selection of senior class “chaplains” and the scheduling of invocations, benedictions and other prayers at graduation ceremonies, violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In a decision released late yesterday, the appeals court ruled that “the Duval County school system’s policy of permitting graduating students to decide, through majority/plurality vote, whether to have student representatives give unrestricted messages at the beginning and closing of graduation ceremonies facially violates the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution].”

Prayers and religious messages have been sanctioned under the current school board policy at Duval County high school graduation ceremonies since 1993. As one example, the following prayer was offered at the June 1993 commencement at Jean Ribault Senior High School:

Help us to understand that we must help the one who plunders in some agony or strife, for we know it must be our Christian duty to pay heed to every pride, and deny no soul the kindness of some need we can supply. Lord help us to realize that you made us all to matter to you, our maker, as well as to each other. These and other blessings we ask in the Lord Jesus’ name. Amen.

“We are very pleased with the court’s decision,” said Jacksonville attorney William J. Sheppard, the ACLU cooperating attorney for the students and lead attorney in the lawsuit. “We believe it vindicates important First Amendment principles.”

“The Duval County School Board has ignored the Constitution and the requirements of separation of church and state for several years,” said Cee Cee Severin, spokesperson for the Greater Jacksonville Chapter of the ACLU of Florida. “As difficult as this decision may be for some members of our school board and community to accept, we are grateful that the courts have agreed with the ACLU that prayers and other religious practices belong in the home, the church, the synagogues, and the mosques, and not in our public schools,” Severin added.

Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida, called sectarian prayers at public school commencements are constitutionally inappropriate and insensitive to the increasing diversity of the country’s public school population.

“The school board cannot impose prayer on a public school ceremony, and they cannot evade their constitutional responsibilities by claiming that they have simply transferred that authority to a designated student ‘chaplain,'” Simon said.

“The practices at graduation exercises in Duval County are a government endorsement of religion,” Simon added. “Graduation ceremonies are an occasion of singular importance for all of the seniors and their families, and conformity with an officially sanctioned set of religious views should not be the price of attending one’s own high school graduation.”

A previous lawsuit with similar claims was brought in Jacksonville by the ACLU in 1994 but was vacated as moot in 1997 before a final decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit after the students who had brought the earlier suit graduated.

Following the 1992 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Lee v. Weisman prohibiting “prayer, benediction, or invocation at any graduation ceremonies” conducted or sponsored by a public school board, the Duval County School Board adopted a policy authorizing students to deliver prayers at commencements. The policy and guidelines do not limit the prayers and other religious messages at graduation ceremonies to a secular content, and there is no requirement that the material be non-sectarian in nature.

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