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Public Schools Can Bar Graduation Preaching, Appeals Court Rules.

Public schools have the right to bar students from preaching to their peers during graduation ceremonies, a federal appellate court has ruled.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in October that officials at Oroville High School in California did not violate the free speech rights of graduating seniors Ferrin Cole and Chris Niemeyer when they refused to allow the two to deliver a sectarian invocation and remarks during the 1998 graduation ceremony.

Since 1985 the school has maintained a policy of reviewing remarks delivered by students during graduation. In 1998, school officials told Cole and Niemeyer to make their religious statements "non-denominational." They refused, were denied permission to speak and subsequently sued the school.

The 9th Circuit Court found that the school acted within its rights in an effort to avoid the appearance of government sponsorship of religious worship. In its ruling of the Cole v. Oroville Union High School District case, the court cited a decision handed down last June by the U.S. Supreme Court barring school-sponsored prayers before public school football games.

But a federal appeals court in another part of the country reached the opposite conclusion in a different school prayer case recently. On Oct. 19, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that certain types of "student-initiated" prayer in Alabama public schools are legal.

The case, Chandler v. Siegelman, was brought by Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. It challenged a number of coercive and school-sponsored religious practices in DeKalb County. Although some of the more egregious practices have been terminated, the court ruling opens the door to certain forms of coercive religious activity, asserting that it is student-initiated as opposed to school-initiated.

The U.S. Supreme Court had ordered the 11th Circuit to reconsider its earlier ruling in the Chandler case. Attorneys at Americans United interpreted that move as a strong signal that the high court wanted the 11th Circuit to reverse the earlier ruling. Since the 11th Circuit failed to do that, attorneys with Americans United say they will seek a rehearing.

In other news about religion in public schools:

* Religious activity at football games remains contentious in many communities, with some public schools simply ignoring the Supreme Court's ban on coercive worship.

The Tulsa World reported recently that school officials in Fort Gibson, Okla., allowed students to meet for prayer on the field before the game and incorporate religion into the halftime show. The newspaper said the school band played four Christian hymns -- "Swinging Chariots," "Gospel John" "I Saw the Light" and "Sweet, Sweet Spirit" -- while marching in the shape of a cross and waving a flag bearing a cross.

In DeKalb County, Ga., some public schools are trying to skirt the prayer ban by allowing Baptist ministers to serve as team chaplains. School officials say the practice is permissible because participation in prayer is voluntary. Critics respond that peer pressure and fear of being benched make complaints unlikely.
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Publication:Church & State
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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