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Public schools may curb grad prayer, proselytizing, appellate court says. (People & Events).

Public schools may require graduation speakers to keep their remarks free of prayer and proselytization, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Ruling in a case from the Bay Area of San Francisco, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said officials at Pleasanton Unified School District did not violate former salutatorian Nicholas Lassonde's free-speech fights when they told him to remove about 200 words from his prepared remarks. The section was religious in nature, and included Lassonde's plea that fellow students "seek out the Lord."

Lassonde, who graduated in 1999, was permitted to distribute copies of his full remarks, including the religious content, to fellow students after the ceremony. But he filed suit against the school anyway, with the aid of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal group based in Virginia. He claimed that his free speech and religious freedom fights had been violated.

The appeals court disagreed, asserting that school officials acted properly to ensure that the other students were not subjected to unwanted sermonizing. The court also rejected the claim that the school could have used a disclaimer that made it clear that Lassonde was speaking only for himself and not the school.

Even a disclaimer, said the unanimous court, would not "change the fact that proselytizing amounts to a religious practice that the school district may not coerce other students to participate in, even while looking the other way."

The Rutherford Institute has indicated it will appeal the Lassonde v. Pleasanton Unified School District ruling to the Supreme Court.

In other news about prayer in public schools:

* A bill that would allow public school students to give "inspirational" messages and benedictions at school events has cleared the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives.

State Rep. Wilbert Holloway (D-Miami) has introduced the bill annually over the past three years. It has passed the House each time but died in the Senate. Holloway's measure does not use the word "prayer" but is seen as a back-door school prayer bill. It would allow religious messages at graduation and other school-sponsored events if a majority of students vote for them.

The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel editorialized against the measure, saying it would lead to religious coercion.

"At official school functions, it forces some students and teachers to listen to prayers that they may not want to hear. An invocation or benediction is a prayer; no one is fooled," observed the newspaper. "More than likely, it will result in the Christian majority of students at many schools offering prayers that `accidentally' mention Jesus Christ."
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Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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