Federal Court Stops Graduation Prayer At West Virginia High School

AU, ACLU of West Virginia Prevent Kanawha County from Promoting Religion at Official School Event

A federal judge in West Virginia has announced that a public school in St. Albans, West Virginia, may not include school-sponsored prayer as part of its graduation ceremony.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia filed suit this week, arguing that the school's plan to include worship as part of the commencement activities ran afoul of the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

In an opinion issued late yesterday, Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. agreed that the religious exercise was inappropriate for an official school event and ordered the school not to include prayer as part of the service.

"We're very pleased that the court agreed that public school activities must remain religiously neutral," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This ruling strikes the right balance. Students can pray if they wish during the graduation ceremony, but to protect everyone's rights, worship will not be an official part of the ceremony."

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.

In his ruling in Deveny v. County of Kanawha, Judge Copenhaver said the county's policy is "plainly invalid" and problematic because it serves to "entangle the government with religion in constitutionally repugnant ways."

AU and the ACLU of West Virginia filed the case on behalf of a graduating senior who objected to the coercive religious practice.

AU's Legal Director, Ayesha Khan, who is serving as lead counsel in the case, was also pleased with the court ruling.

"The real winners here are the families in Kanawha County," Khan said. "By ruling against school-sponsored prayer, the judge has protected the religious liberty of every family in the community."

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.