Americans United for Separation of Church and State today condemned a federal appeals court ruling that allows prayer at high school graduation ceremonies as long as students make the decision.
In its Adler v. Duval County School Board ruling released yesterday, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 1993 Florida school district policy that permits students to elect a classmate to deliver a two-minute "message" during commencement ceremonies.
Since the policy's implementation, prayers and invocations have dominated the student messages. One Duval County school even elected a student "chaplain" to deliver a prayer at graduation.
"Public school events must remain religiously neutral to protect the rights of everyone," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Students should not be coerced to pray at a public school event even if a majority of students votes to do so."
AU's Lynn charged that the Duval County school board set up the policy as part of a deliberate ruse to evade court rulings banning school-sponsored prayer at graduation.
"For years, school prayer advocates have tried to circumvent the law by asking students to do what school officials cannot," Lynn added. "But the fact remains that a graduation ceremony is an official public school event that is supposed to remain neutral and respect the diversity of the community. Turning the podium over to a student doesn't change that.
"If students want to pray at graduation, that's up to them. This isn't about stopping anyone from praying, it's about making sure that everyone feels welcome at public events," Lynn said.
"This ruling allows the state to promote the prayer of the majority at an official public school event, while telling the minority, 'too bad,'" Lynn concluded. "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."
Americans United filed a brief in the case arguing against coercive school prayer. AU is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.