Americans United, Aclu Of West Virginia File Suit To Stop School-sponsored Graduation Prayer

'School Officials Have No Business Promoting Religion at an Official School Event,' Says AU's Lynn

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia filed a federal lawsuit today to stop a public school in St. Albans, West Virginia, from including school-sponsored prayer at its graduation ceremony.

"School officials have absolutely no business promoting religion at an official school event," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Public school events must remain religiously neutral to protect the rights of everyone."

The school district in Kanawha County, West Virginia, has a policy that allows students to vote on including prayer at school graduation ceremonies. The prayers are supposed to be "non-sectarian" and "non-proselytizing," and must be approved by school principals before the event.

The lawsuit challenges the county's policy and seeks to block graduation prayer at St. Albans High School. The Deveny v. Kanawha suit was filed on behalf of a graduating senior who objects to the coercive religious practice.

"Students should not be pressured or coerced to pray at an official event, even if a majority of students votes to do so," Lynn added. "The school may think school-promoted prayer offers a good lesson; in fact, it only teaches students contempt for the Constitution and minority views."

Lynn rejected the idea that the graduation prayer policy is merely about allowing the free exercise of religion.

"If students want to pray during a graduation ceremony, that's up to them," Lynn said. "This isn't about stopping voluntary worship, it's about making sure that everyone feels welcome at public school events.

"This policy allows the state to promote the prayer of the majority at an official public school event, while telling the minority, 'too bad,'" Lynn added. "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."

AU's Legal Director, Ayesha Khan, who is serving as lead counsel in the case, noted that the Supreme Court dealt with a similar case just two years ago. In that case, the justices struck down a policy that called for students to vote on whether to include a student-led prayer at home football games.

"The Supreme Court has already ruled that students cannot vote to include prayers at school events," Khan said. "The Kanawha County School Board is flagrantly violating that ruling."

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.

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.