Without A Prayer: Judge Nixes School's Graduation Tradition

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The program says prayer. A judge says no.

And so, when Washington Community High School hosts graduation Sunday, superintendent Lee Edwards will have to explain how a 24-hour legal lightning bolt struck this Peoria, Ill., suburb, ending the school's 80-year tradition of offering invocation and benediction prayers at graduation.

On Thursday, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting Washington High's student-led prayers.

The decision came just a day after senior valedictorian Natasha Appenheimer - backed by the American Civil Liberties Union - filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming the prayers were unconstitutional. The judge agreed.

"I am a Christian and a believer," Chief U.S. District Judge Joe B. McDade said before announcing his decision, "but in this country, a nonbeliever has more rights than a believer."

But in this Christian community where prayer has accompanied every commencement since 1921, residents can't understand the ruling.

"We're not happy with the verdict, and we don't agree with it," Edwards said. "Naturally, there's a lot of upset people at this point."

After all, school officials say, this case is unique because students chose to include the prayers - not administrators.

In fact, a group of student government leaders drew up the graduation program, and senior Sarah Claus volunteered to give the prayers, which were written and submitted to an English teacher for minor grammatical editing.

But the ACLU argues it doesn't matter whether students or administrators offer the prayers - the fact that they're offered at a school function is enough to violate the Constitution.

"Student-initiated prayer doesn't work because all the school board is doing is scraping on to the students what it can't do itself," ACLU staff attorney Pamela Sumners said.

"The superintendent can't get on the loud speaker and pray, and neither can a student get on a school-run loudspeaker and pray."

For some, the legal swiftness in overturning tradition may have been more disturbing than the ruling's severity.

Appenheimer and the ACLU first confronted school officials about the legality of the prayers at Monday's school board meeting. After hearing their complaints, the board voted to stick to tradition and some students' request to replace the prayers with a moment of silence.

On Wednesday night, Edwards learned of the lawsuit. Thursday morning, he was subpoenaed. By that afternoon, the prayers were history.

Now Edwards will have to explain to the commencement crowd why the 2,000 printed programs - which list the prayers - are wrong.

"The thing I think has been most disconcerting about this issue is the timing," Edwards said.

After graduation, school officials plan to review the judge's forthcoming written statement, and both sides will meet in court later as the ACLU seeks a permanent injunction against any further graduation prayers.

"We don't think we're doing anything wrong," Edwards said. "If we thought as a school board, as a district, that this was illegal, we would discontinue this practice."