A federal appeals court ruled today that officials at an Everett, Wash., school district were within their rights to omit religious music from a graduation ceremony.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case siding with the school district, hailed the ruling.
“This is a good decision,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Public schools serve students from diverse backgrounds, so it’s vitally important that commencement ceremonies be inclusive.
“Graduation is an important event, and all students and their families should feel welcome,” Lynn continued. “Public school administrators are right to ensure that the program doesn’t appear to favor one religion over others. Hymns are appropriate for church, but not public school graduations.”
The dispute began in 2006 when students at Everett School District No. 2 sought to perform an instrumental version of “Ave Maria,” (Latin for “Hail Mary”) during graduation ceremonies.
School officials, mindful of a controversy that had erupted the year before over religious music at graduation, removed the song from the program and replaced it with a non-religious piece.
One of the student members of the wind ensemble, Kathryn Nurre, subsequently sued school officials, asserting that her free-speech and equal-protection rights had been violated.
The 9th U.S. District Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling in Nurre v. Whitehead that school officials have the right to ensure that a public ceremony like graduation does not have religious overtones.
“[T]he District’s action in keeping all musical performances at graduation ‘entirely secular’ in nature was reasonable in light of the circumstances surrounding a high school graduation, and therefore it did not violate Nurre’s right to free speech,” the court held.
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.