ST. PAUL, Minn. A Nebraska school-prayer case went before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday the latest twist in a three-year dispute that pits the American Civil Liberties Union and a family against a school district and a school board member.
A Norfolk family sued the district and school board member Jim Scheer after he led students in the Lord's Prayer at a 2000 graduation ceremony during which his own son was graduating.
Norfolk School Board members traditionally have been allowed to speak at commencement ceremonies if they have a son or daughter graduating.
The family who sued said the prayer violated the constitutional separation of church and state. They're not identified in court filings.
At issue is whether Scheer was speaking on his own behalf or on behalf of the district.
Appeals Judge Morris Arnold said he doubted he would be hearing this case if Scheer simply had said religion was important to him.
"He went farther than that, and that's the troubling part," Arnold said. "Lines are always difficult to draw. The question is on which side of the line does this fall."
Scheer said he spoke only for himself when he addressed the students.
U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith of Omaha, Neb., ruled earlier that she found no evidence that school officials knew what Scheer would say before the ceremony.
The ACLU appealed that ruling to the 8th Circuit. The ACLU had contacted the school before the 2000 ceremony and warned officials that a planned prayer would violate the Constitution. The school then announced that the scheduled prayer had been removed from the program. Scheer was allowed to speak, however, and led the students in prayer.
The Norfolk family said graduation was a high point that was ruined for the student when Scheer recited the prayer.
Scheer said he hadn't intended the recitation as a prayer, but rather as part of a discussion about things he used in his life to help guide him, and the Lord's Prayer was one of those things.
His attorney, Jefferson Downing, said the prayer was part of a broader speech.
"It was not illegal conduct and it was not illegal speech," Downing said.
The family is asking that the court declare Scheer's actions illegal and to award the son and mother $15,000 each in compensation, as well as $50,000 each in punitive damages.
Their attorney, Daniel Friedman, said the speech sent a message marginalizing people in the religious minority.
"Public education is a trust between the government and children," Freidman said.
Friedman said they were asking the 8th Circuit to tell schools, "We're not going to provide a blueprint for how you subvert the Constitution" by carving out an exception to the separation of church and state.