Caps, gowns and prayer lawsuits (updated)


As spring turns to summer, it's the time for shaved-ice snow cones, cool dips in the swimming pool, hot nights at the ballpark ... and steamy legal battles over whether prayer is allowed at high school graduation ceremonies.

For much of the last week, a federal lawsuit over whether prayer would be allowed as seniors at a Texas high school donned caps and gowns made headlines in the Lone Star State and nationally. With each turn of the crank (read: each new development in the case), I grew more frustrated with the lack of specific reporting on the legal arguments on each side. Most of the reports I read acted as if this were the first time anyone had ever sued over a high school graduation prayer. I really don't think that's the case.

The Texas case burst into the headlines when a federal judge banned prayer at the ceremony -- a decision quickly appealed by the school district and lambasted by the state's governor and attorney general. The top of the San Antonio Express News report on the ruling:

At this year's graduation ceremony for students of Medina Valley High School, publicly uttered prayer is out -- but individual references to a higher being are allowed.

Such was the ruling Tuesday from Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery in a lawsuit filed by Christa and Danny Schultz on behalf of one of their sons, who is one of the 238 seniors who will graduate Saturday from the school in Castroville.

The Schultz family is agnostic and says a son who graduated in 2009 was wrongly subjected to school-sponsored prayer, something the school district has repeatedly allowed despite long-standing legal precedent that bars it.

That lede makes clear that the judge's ruling contained some nuance. However, the story never quotes directly from the order or explains precisely what the judge allowed and prohibited. Neither does the newspaper provide a link to the pdf of the actual ruling -- much to my dismay. (Update: Thanks to Kate Shellnut for pointing out this link where the Express News did link to the documents!) Moreover, the third paragraph refers to "long-standing legal precedent" but provides no details to confirm that assertion. By reading this particular news story, it's obvious that prayers are banned at high school graduations.

Or maybe not. I was pleased Sunday to see a front-page story in The Tennessean by Godbeat writer Bob Smietana that seems much more cognizant of the murky legal waters on this issue:

Some things are clearly banned -- such as teacher-led prayer or allowing an outside group, like the Gideons, to hand out Bibles.

Other things -- like having students pray or mention God during a graduation speech or holding school events in a church -- have been banned by some courts and allowed by others.

“The terrible answer that no one wants to hear is that everything depends on the context,” Haynes said. “These things can’t be answered in black and white.”

In a follow-up story, the San Antonio paper interviewed a valedictorian fighting for the right to pray in her graduation address. While the first report said individual references to a higher being were allowed, the second story reported:

Hildenbrand, 18 , wants to be able to pray and mention terms or phrases barred by Biery's order — to include “amen” and “in the name of Jesus” in the speech, said Erin Leu , an attorney with the Liberty Institute.

Biery's order, issued Tuesday, says the Schultzes are “likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the inclusion of prayers at Medina Valley High School graduation ceremonies violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.” It also ordered the district to not include the terms “invocation” and “benediction” in the graduation program, and prohibits speakers from uttering certain phrases that would encourage the crowd to join in prayer.

A Reuters report on the ruling included this section:

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Wednesday asked a federal appeals court to overturn the order.

"This is part of an ongoing attempt to purge God from the public setting, while at the same time demanding from the court increased yielding to all things agnostic and atheistic," Abbott said.

He said Congress begins each session with a prayer to God, and Biery's ruling would allow a student to "bend over in honor of Mecca," but not lead a prayer to the Christian God.

But again, this report does not quote the judge's ruling directly, so it's difficult for a reader to discern what he actually ruled.

Fox News provided a bit of specificity:

The judge did grant students permission to make the sign of the cross, wear religious garb or kneel to face Mecca. But that’s not good enough for some students at the high school.

On Friday, an appeals court reversed the judge's ruling. Students who attended the ceremony "heard prayers aplenty," and the majority seemed quite pleased by that, the Express News reported.

Meanwhile, and maybe it's just me, the journalistic nitty-gritty on the legal battle that just occurred seems vague, confusing and totally lacking in context to understand it.

Until the next graduation season ...

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