Texas School District's Graduation Prayer Policy Violates Constitution, Americans United Lawsuit Charges

Religious Liberty Watchdog Group Says School Officials May Not Promote 'Majority Rules' Prayer At Graduation

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed a lawsuit against a Texas public school district that sponsors prayer at high school graduation ceremonies.

Representing six parents and a former student, Americans United told the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas yesterday that the Round Rock Independent School District’s policy of allowing students to vote on whether to include prayer in its graduation ceremonies violates the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

“Graduation ceremonies should welcome all students, regardless of their beliefs about religion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Religion is personal, and decisions about it should never be the subject of a ‘majority rules’ vote.”

The school district policy allows a yearly vote by seniors on whether to include prayer in graduation ceremonies. In 2007, three of the district’s four high schools decided in favor of prayer. Americans United charges in its lawsuit that school officials organize, oversee and attempt to manipulate the votes on whether to include prayer at the ceremonies.

For example, earlier this year, officials at the district’s four high schools conducted the votes on whether to include prayer at the 2007 graduation ceremonies. The senior class at Westwood High School was the only class to vote against prayer, and it was promptly ordered by district officials to conduct a re-vote. Westwood seniors, however, again voted against prayer at their graduation ceremonies.

“There could be no mistake among the students that the vote was an official school-sponsored event: school officials crafted the ballot and orchestrated and carried out ballot delivery, collection, and tabulation,” Americans United argues in its Does v. Round Rock Independent School District lawsuit. “And there could be no mistake among the students about which way the District expected them to vote: the one senior class that voted to reject the invocation was promptly ordered to re-vote on the issue.”

Although the seniors at Westwood High School withstood the district’s pressure, prayer was included in the graduation ceremonies at McNeil, Stony Point and Round Rock high schools.

Before filing the lawsuit, Americans United in May asked district officials to remove prayer from the high schools’ graduation ceremonies. Round Rock Independent School District Superintendent Jesus Chavez, however, defended the prayer policy.

Americans United’s lawsuit asks the federal district court to declare that the school district’s prayer policy violates the First Amendment and to issue an injunction barring prayer at future graduation ceremonies. 

The plaintiffs in the case have chosen to remain anonymous because they are concerned about hostile reactions to the lawsuit.

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.