Graduation Faith Fight

Texas attorney general and valedictorian work to overturn prayer ban.

(photo: Shutterstock)

SAN ANTONIO (CNA) — Texas’ attorney general has asked an appellate court to overturn a federal judge’s decision banning prayer at a public-school graduation. The school’s valedictorian has also taken legal action against the decision, saying she has the right to speak to God during her remarks.

“Just as the U.S. Supreme Court has held that Congress can convene each day with a prayer, Medina Valley High School students have a constitutionally protected right to pray during their graduation speeches,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said on June 2, summing up the amicus brief he filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The Medina Valley School District is appealing against U.S. District Judge Fred Biery’s May 26 decision, which held that an agnostic student and his family would suffer “irreparable harm” if students and other speakers were allowed to pray or ask the audience to join them in prayer during the ceremony.

Judge Biery’s injunction stated that both students and officials of the school district would be “prohibited from allowing a prayer to be included in the June 4, 2011, graduation ceremony for Medina Valley High School.” He cited the U.S. Constitution’s ban on a congressional “establishment of religion” as the basis for his injunction.

However, the same amendment that prohibits the establishment of a state religion also guarantees citizens the “free exercise of religion.”

Attorney General Abbott told the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the district court’s order “creates, rather than alleviates, constitutional violations.”

“In its efforts to remedy a nonexistent constitutional violation, the district court ordered Medina Valley to abridge the free speech and free-exercise rights of its graduation speakers,” Abbott argued.

He noted that Judge Biery’s order also “threatened Medina Valley officials with incarceration and other sanctions if they fail to commit these First Amendment violations.”

The Texas attorney general argued that Judge Biery’s order took no account of “Medina Valley’s obligations to respect the First Amendment rights of the student speakers” to exercise their faith.

While the order did not ban student speakers from mentioning their religion, it did insist that they would not be allowed to “present a prayer” or “deliver a message that would commonly be understood to be a prayer.”

Student speakers also “may not ask audience members to ‘stand,’ ‘join in prayer’ or ‘bow their heads’” and “may not end their remarks with ‘Amen’ or ‘in (a deity’s name), we pray.”

This court order, Abbott said, meant that Medina Valley officials were “currently faced with the choice to either obey the district court’s order and violate the First Amendment rights of the student speakers or permit the students to freely speak and risk incarceration and other contempt sanctions.”

The Texas attorney general told the appellate court that emergency relief against the injunction “is not just warranted, it is required.”

The Texas-based Liberty Institute is also working to oppose the ban on prayer at the June 4 graduation. A team of lawyers from the institute filed a motion in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on June 2 on behalf of Medina Valley High School’s 2011 valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand.

Hildenbrand was planning to include a prayer to God as part of her address to the students, family members and friends. Under Judge Biery’s court order, she would be able to address the crowd on the subject of her religious faith but would be barred from addressing God directly through prayer.

Her attorneys maintain that by “banning some religious words while allowing others,” the district court would force the school district to “engage in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” against a citizen.

Their motion asks for Judge Biery’s order to be stayed, modified or dissolved, so that Hildenbrand would be “permitted to pray and speak the words ‘Lord,’ ‘in the name of Jesus’ and ‘Amen.’”