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Federal Appeals Court OKs 'Student-Led' Graduation Prayer.

A public school district in Florida may include prayers during graduation as long as the religious activity is initiated and led by students, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The full llth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, ruled 10-2 March 15 that a school prayer policy approved by the Duval County, Fla., School Board in 1993 is constitutional. The policy allows students to elect a representative from the graduating class to deliver a two-minute "message." The "message" may include prayers and other religious references.

"The total absence of state involvement in deciding whether there will be a graduation message, who will speak or what the speaker may say, combined with the student's complete autonomy over the content ... convinces us that the message delivered, be it secular or sectarian or both, is not state-sponsored," wrote Judge Stanley Marcus for the majority.

Dissenting Judge Phyllis Kravitch disagreed, writing, "Although the Duval County school administration may have distanced itself from prayer offered during graduation ceremonies, it did not disconnect itself from religious expression. Nor does the policy mitigate the influences that coerce audience members to participate in prayers offered at graduation."

The American Civil Liberties Union and other supporters of church-state separation had argued that the Duval County policy was clearly a ruse designed to get around the U.S. Supreme Court's 1992 Lee v. Weisman decision, which barred clergy-led prayers at public school graduations. The lead plaintiff in the case, Karen Adler, noted that nearly every message given at graduation since the policy was passed has been religious in nature. One Duval County school even elected a student "chaplain" to deliver a prayer at graduation.

Americans United, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, condemned the Adler v. Duval County School Board ruling. "Public school events must remain religiously neutral to protect the rights of everyone," said AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "Students should not be coerced to pray at a public school event even if a majority of students vote to do so."

Concluded Lynn, "This ruling allows the state to promote the prayer of the majority at an official public school event, while telling the minority, `too bad.' At its core, that amounts to state-sponsored tyranny of the majority. If that isn't in conflict with the First Amendment, I don't know what is."
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Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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