As Graduation Approaches, Colorado Family Asks Court to End School-Sponsored Religious Exercises

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
May 23, 2002 12:00 am

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DENVER–An Eastern Colorado family that has asked the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado for help in ending religious exercises in a Kiowa County public school is expected to testify in federal district court this Friday, the ACLU said today.

Shields Family

Sean Shields and his family are asking a school to end its endorsement of religion at graduation and other events.

Thirteen-year-old Ashlee Shields and her father, Sean Shields, filed a federal lawsuit on Monday seeking an end to school-sponsored religious messages, including a planned school-sponsored prayer at the graduation ceremony scheduled for this Saturday at Plainview School in Sheridan Lake, a small town 140 miles east of Denver with a population of about 60 K-12 students.

“School personnel who use their official position to promote the majority Christian religion make children and their parents who believe otherwise feel unwelcome in their own school and in their own community,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado.

In an affidavit on file with the court, Ashlee, a seventh-grade student at the combined high school and middle school, explained that she does not share the religious beliefs espoused by the majority of her schoolmates, and she is made to feel like an unwanted outsider when the school program includes prayer or religious songs.

“I don’t think I should have to just try to ignore the prayer and I don’t want to have to leave the room because it makes me the center of attention and makes me feel left out,” Ashlee explained. “I don’t think I should have to choose between listening to prayers or not being able to participate in school activities.”

According to the ACLU lawsuit, a Christian minister delivered a prayer at the graduation ceremony every year until the spring of 2001, when Sean, a math teacher at the school, protested to school officials. The school responded by substituting a student-delivered “message” on the graduation program last year. The senior class was permitted to vote on whether the message would be a prayer. When the seniors voted not to deliver a prayer, the lawsuit states, community members complained. The school then organized a second vote in which the seniors complied with community pressure and voted to deliver a prayer.

“Under our Constitution, freedom of religion can’t be put to a vote, and the majority is not permitted to impose its religious beliefs on the minority,” explained Jim Hubbell, an ACLU cooperating attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Shields family. “In other parts of the world, religion is used by local majorities to justify mistreating religious minorities, including Christian missionaries. Such religious intolerance continues to destroy communities all over the world. We cannot risk letting that happen in Colorado.”

The ACLU lawsuit said that school authorities regularly open school-sponsored activities with a prayer, including the annual teacher orientation that Sean is required to attend. Bibles were distributed to each teacher last year through the school’s internal mail, and school authorities arranged for bibles to be given to each student who turned in a signed permission slip that the school handed out for children to take home.

“Public schools are not Sunday school, and the place for the teaching of religion is the home and places of worship chosen by the parents,” Silverstein said. “Schools can and should teach tolerance and good citizenship, but they cannot favor one religion over another or belief over non-belief,” he added, noting that the United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, home to 1500 religious groups, along with atheists, agnostics, and other belief systems.

A ruling on the family’s request for temporary restraining order is expected shortly after Friday’s 9:00 a.m. hearing before federal district court judge Marcia Krieger.

A legal brief in the case is available online at /Files/Files.cfm?ID=10381&c=184.

The declarations of Sean and Ashlee Shields can be read at /Files/Files.cfm?ID=10382&c=184 and

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