Editor's note: In early June 2002, a federal judge found that John Doe and Mary Doe can keep their anonymity in a civil rights lawsuit against the Norfolk, Neb., school district over prayer at graduation ceremonies in 2000. The jury trial in the case has been delayed from September to November.
LINCOLN, Neb. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Norfolk Public Schools and a school board member who led students in the Lord’s Prayer at a graduation ceremony last year.
The lawsuit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Lincoln, accused the district and board member Jim Scheer of violating the constitutional separation of church and state.
“Courts at all levels have held that graduation prayers offered by school officials are unconstitutional,” said Tim Butz, executive director of the Nebraska ACLU. “Apparently the elected school board members and others in Norfolk believe that the Constitution does not apply within their city limits.”
The ACLU is representing a Norfolk family, identified in court papers only as “John Doe, et al,” that objected to the planned prayer at the graduation ceremony.
The ACLU contacted the school prior to the ceremony and warned officials that the 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 was filed with the school district.
The school announced that the scheduled prayer had been removed from the program, but Scheer was allowed to speak and led the students in prayer.
“A school board has no right to force a religious preference or views on the captive audience of a graduation,” Butz said. “They are, in effect, dividing the community into those who accept the preferred religious views and those who do not.”
Scheer declined comment. Randy Nelson, superintendent of schools, did not immediately return a call by the Associated Press seeking comment.
Earlier this year, Norfolk High School’s 2001 valedictorian led students in prayer at graduation. She received a standing ovation from her classmates.
The ACLU took no action in that case because the girl was not a school or government official and acted on her own, Butz said.
In August, Boone Central Schools Superintendent Richard Stephens was reprimanded by the state Department of Education for leading students in prayer.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a Texas school district’s prayer policy, ruling it violated the constitutionally required separation of government and religion.
In that case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Supreme Court said 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 sporting events eventually effecting graduation ceremonies, moments of silence and more.
In the 1992 case Lee v. Weisman, the high court barred clergy-led prayers invocations and benedictions at public school graduation ceremonies.