ICLU Brings Lawsuit On Behalf of Students Required to Sing Lord's Prayer at Graduation

Affiliate: ACLU of Iowa
April 1, 2002 12:00 am

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DES MOINES–Acting on behalf of 14-year-old twins and their parents, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit against the Woodbine Community School District in west central Iowa challenging the district’s practice of having the school choir sing the Lord’s Prayer at school graduation ceremonies scheduled for May 19.

“”The Lord’s Prayer represents a deeply personal affirmation of faith for millions of Christians worldwide,”” said Ben Stone, executive director of the ICLU. “The government has no business forcing kids to sing such a prayer. This is about recognizing the dignity of people who don’t happen to agree with the majority on a religious matter.””

The ICLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of twins Donovan and Ruby Skarin, who are sophomore members of the high school choir, and their parents, Christine and Donald Skarin, all of Dunlap, Iowa. The lawsuit charges that the practice of requiring students in the choir to sing the prayer violates the religious freedom of choir members. The ICLU is also arguing that including the prayer in the graduation program represents the government endorsement of a particular religious view in violation of the First Amendment.

Donovan and Ruby are suing in order to stop the school from forcing them to sing the prayer, while their parents, who pay taxes in support of the school, are suing to stop the district from spending taxpayer dollars in support of an official, government prayer, as well as to protect their parental right to raise their children free from government religious coercion.

The Skarin twins said they feel uncomfortable being forced to sing the Lord’s Prayer. “The prayer which they are having us sing for graduation is basically forcing us to sing praise to a God that we don’t even believe in,” said Donovan Skarin.

Ruby Skarin said she regretted that the school’s policy basically forced her to be disrespectful to her classmates. “I know that I am not giving the prayer the respect that I know they feel it should be given,” she said.

The high school choir has performed the Lord’s Prayer at Woodbine’s graduation ceremony several times in the past. The Skarin twins were forced to sing the prayer last year. The ICLU believes the prayer was also included in ceremonies in 1995 and 1999. It may have been sung in other years as well.

Despite being asked by community members to remove the prayer from the program this year, district officials decided that the graduation ceremony, scheduled for May 19, 2002, would once again include the prayer.

Today’s legal action represents the fifth time in 20 years the ICLU has been involved in a school prayer lawsuit, although it has been nearly a decade since the ICLU went to court to stop a school-sponsored graduation prayer. The ICLU won in the district court in all five cases.

In 1993, the civil liberties organization won a district court ruling involving the Sheldon and Marcus school districts. On appeal, the case was dismissed on the unrelated issue of standing.

In the 1980s, the ICLU prevailed in three cases. In 1989, the ICLU successfully defended the West Monona school district after it was sued by a minister who wanted to force the district to include a graduation prayer.

In 1985, a federal judge told the Leon school district to drop a graduation prayer after the ICLU brought suit on behalf of a graduating student.

And in 1982, the principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs was told by a federal judge to stop leading students in prayer at school-sponsored Christmas and Easter services. The plaintiff in that suit, Milton Abramson, received death threats.

To those who believe school-sponsored prayers should be allowed if a majority want them, the ICLU’s Stone had this to say: “If we allow a small town to set up an official religion, then religious intolerance will rule. All you have to do is look at the Middle East, Ireland and the Balkans to appreciate how lucky we are in America that we don’t allow a religious majority to use the government to coerce religious minorities.”

The federal lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of Iowa, Western Division, which is located in Council Bluffs. The plaintiffs seek a court order to prevent the school from requiring the prayer, but are not asking for monetary damages. In addition to the ICLU’s Legal Director, Randall Wilson, the Skarins will also be represented by Professor Sally Frank and law students at the Drake Legal Clinic in Des Moines.

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