Colorado teacher loses bid to block graduation prayer

By The Associated Press
05.28.02

A federal judge late last week refused to stop students at a rural Colorado school from reading a prayer during graduation May 25.

U.S. District Court Judge Marica Krieger on May 24 denied an injunction filed by Plainview School math teacher Sean Shields, who argued the prayer violates the First Amendment's establishment clause, which forbids state-sanctioned religion.

Shields and his family are atheists. The injunction request was part of a lawsuit that seeks a permanent ban on prayer at the school.

The K-12 school requires graduating students to vote on reading a prayer, having a moment of silence or doing nothing. The 2002 class voted to say a prayer.

Shields' daughter Ashlee, a seventh-grader, was an usher at the ceremony. Neither Shields nor his daughter bowed for the prayer May 25 when it was delivered by senior Trista Harris, The Denver Post reported.

"We're disappointed at best," he said. "My family and I don't share the religious beliefs of the majority of the community, and I would just like the school to be a place where my children don't feel left out."

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit against Kiowa County School District RE-2 on behalf of Shields and his daughter. The school is located in Sheridan Lakes, about 140 miles east of Denver, and has about 60 students.

Superintendent Johnny Holcomb did everything to make sure the school wasn't breaking the law, school district lawyer Mike Norton said.

"It boiled down to free speech," he said. "To suppress it would have been a violation of free speech."

About 15 community members present at the hearing May 24 hugged and cheered outside the courthouse.

"A prayer should be delivered at school events," Harris said after the hearing. "It's important to get (God's) help before we move on to the future."

Meanwhile, the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union plans to file a lawsuit today to prevent St. Albans High School from including prayer during graduation May 30.

"Freedom of religion is only secure when the government does not interfere with matters of conscience," said Andrew Schneider, the state ACLU's executive director.

Last week, Kanawha County school board attorney Jim Withrow wrote to Schneider that the school would not cancel the prayer.

Withrow cited a Santa Fe, N.M., case in which a federal appeals court upheld a school district's graduation prayer policy. The U.S. Supreme Court did not review the case.

"It appears the weight of authority is that student-led, non-sectarian and non- denominational prayers at graduation ceremonies are acceptable," Withrow wrote.

Classmates Michael Ervin and Tyler Deveny are diametrically opposed about whether the May 30 graduation ceremony should include a prayer.

Ervin, who wants to become a minister, is scheduled to recite the graduation prayer. Deveny, who is an atheist, plans to picket outside the Charleston Civic Center if the prayer is included in the ceremony.

But both 18-year-old seniors say they respect each other for stating their heart-felt positions with dignity and respect.

Ervin, who plans to attend a Bible college this fall, said, "I've always wanted to do the prayer at graduation since I accepted the Lord as my savior six years ago. I put God first before everything."

Deveny, meanwhile, was one of three seniors to protest the prayer's inclusion as something that would subject non-Christians to disdain and ridicule.

"Unless someone stands up, everyone stays down," he said.

Ervin notes that the school's senior class officers voted unanimously to include a prayer in the ceremony, and he says the high school has gone ahead with the practice for years.

Deveny rattled off several cases in which courts have upheld bans on prayer during school activities and said he believes his side will win in court.

"I'm optimistic the Constitution will be upheld," Deveny said. "Legally, they don't have a leg to stand on."