Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit against the Medina Valley Independent School District (near San Antonio) on Friday on behalf of a local family. The group is upset that the June 4 ceremony will include a student-led invocation and benediction. But according to the district, the two planned statements by students do not constitute official school positions and those students have a right to free speech.
“A disclaimer is printed in each graduation program that notes the content of each student speaker's message is the private expression of the individual student and does not reflect the endorsement of the district,” school board president Roland Ruiz told the San Antonio Express.
Christa and Danny Schultz, the family behind the suit, and the Americans United group allege, however, that the school is breaking the law:
“Public schools can't require students to take part in religious worship as the price of attending their graduation,” the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said in a statement. “This is settled law, and the district needs to stop resisting it.”
In October 2010, the couple's lawyers wrote to district officials asking them to stop plans for public prayers during school events. According to the release, officials didn't respond to the request.
The Schultzes attended the graduation of a family friend in 2008, “where they were exposed to unwelcome prayers,” the lawsuit stated, and it happened again in 2009 when their eldest child graduated.
The son said he might not attend the ceremony if prayers are included, according to the release.
In a statement on the group's website, it refers to two Supreme Court cases as evidence. In the the first, Lee vs. Weisman, the justices ruled that involving clergy at public school graduations was a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause. In the second case, Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe, the justices concluded that student-led prayers over the PA system before football games also violated the Establishment Clause because of perceived government endorsement.
But the district isn't backing down, according to Ruiz.
“It is sad that someone would choose the commencement exercises of the 50th anniversary of our school district as a forum for stirring political debate that threatens to needlessly cast a shadow of controversy over the pinnacle event of the class of 2011," he said.