LINCOLN, Neb. — A lawsuit filed against the Norfolk Public Schools and a school board member who led students in the Lord’s Prayer at a graduation ceremony was properly dismissed, a federal appeals court ruled.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday upheld an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp of Omaha.
The American Civil Liberties Union had filed the lawsuit on behalf of a Norfolk family, identified in court papers only as “John Doe, et al.”
The district and board member Jim Scheer were accused of violating the constitutionally implied separation of church and state.
Camp said she found no evidence that school officials knew what Scheer would say before the 2000 ceremony.
Norfolk School Board members traditionally have been allowed to speak at commencement ceremonies if they have a son or daughter graduating. Scheer was allowed to speak because his son was graduating.
In yesterday’s ruling, Judge Andrew Bogue wrote: “While no representative of the School District interrupted Scheer or disclaimed the recitation, there is no evidence that any School District officials knew about Scheer’s intentions prior to his speech.”
The ruling went on to say: “We believe that the informal policy which allowed Scheer to address the audience, the facts surrounding his speech, and the contents of the speech itself indicate sufficient separation between Scheer and his membership on the School Board to warrant a determination that his remarks were private and were not made in his representative capacity as an official of the School District.”
Tim Butz, executive director of the ACLU in Nebraska, declined to comment on the ruling. However, Butz said the ACLU would decide later whether to ask the court to reconsider its ruling.
The ACLU had contacted the school before the ceremony and warned officials that a planned prayer violated the Constitution.
Scheer’s prayer came not long after the school board decided to end the tradition of student-led prayer at graduation because a complaint had been filed with the school district.
The school announced that the scheduled prayer had been removed from the program. Scheer was allowed to speak, however, and led the students in prayer.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Morris Arnold said Scheer used a “quite transparent effort to use his public office to thwart the efforts of the anonymous plaintiffs to ensure that the Constitution is observed.”
“In my view, in the context in which Mr. Scheer was operating, it is apparent that an objective observer could see his actions as state-sponsored,” he said. “Scheer was not merely speaking, he was praying. He invoked the deity. He ‘spoke’ in the vocative case and he invited others to join in. He recited a prayer that must have been familiar to everyone who was present. This was a religious act, pure and simple, at a state-sponsored event.”
Norfolk High School’s 2001 valedictorian led students in prayer at graduation. She received a standing ovation from her classmates.
The ACLU said it took no action in that case because the girl was not a school or government official and acted on her own.
In a similar case in 2001, Boone Central Schools Superintendent Richard Stephens was reprimanded by the state Department of Education for leading students in prayer.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, that public schools could not permit student-led prayers over district-owned public-address systems at athletic events. Such prayers, the high court said, give the appearance of school endorsement of religion.
The court’s sweeping language in the ruling was interpreted by some to extend far beyond school sports events — eventually affecting graduation ceremonies, moments of silence and more.
In its 1992 decision Lee v. Weisman, the high court barred clergy-led prayers — invocations and benedictions — at public school graduation ceremonies.