ACLU seeks to force district to ban student-led graduation prayers

By The Associated Press
03.10.03

LAS VEGAS — The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Clark County School District after officials refused to ban student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies.

The lawsuit, filed March 6 in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas on behalf of seven anonymous residents, calls the district's decision unconstitutional and seeks an injunction forcing officials to ban prayer at school-sponsored events.

"The ACLU is not anti-religious," said Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada. "We have defended the rights of students to pray in school. But they have the right to do so on their own time, in a personal manner."

The school board voted 3-2 last month to uphold a policy allowing invocations and benedictions at graduations under certain conditions, despite objections from the district's attorneys and the Nevada attorney general's office.

Opponents argued the policy conflicts with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says prayer at graduation is a violation of the separation between church and state. (Many religious-liberty scholars argue that the Supreme Court decisions in Lee v. Weisman, 1992, and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 2000, prohibit school-sponsored prayers, even if provided by a student.)

Superintendent Carlos Garcia warned board members that their refusal to implement a ban jeopardizes $70 million in federal funding, including the funds that subsidize the district's free- and reduced-lunch program.

The board may vote March 13 to change the language of the policy, which would protect a student's freedom of speech but would not endorse prayers at graduation. Most of the new wording comes directly from a recent memo on prayer in schools issued by the U.S. Department of Education, said William Hoffman, an attorney for the district.

"What are we supposed to do if a student says a prayer up there, pull the plug?" Hoffman said. "Should we wrestle the student to the ground and give him a noogie?"

ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein said the district is responsible either way, since it reviews graduation speeches before the ceremony.

"The new language tries to hedge and say they have no control over what the student will say, but they approve the speeches," he said.