The Loudoun School board, Virginia, dropped its 9-month fight to pray at graduation ceremonies in January by a 7-3 vote.
The board members agreed not to appeal a ruling in December by U.S. Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. that banned any prayer at Loudoun public school graduations, whether student- or clergy-led, citing fiscal concerns. The district already had spent $129,000 in public funds to fight students seeking a secular commencement. That will make graduations this spring the first in its history without a prayer. (About time.)
Judge Bryan ruled: " . . .a constitutional violation inherently occurs when, in a secondary school graduation setting, a prayer is offered, regardless of who makes the decision that the prayer will be given and who authorizes the actual wording of the remarks. . . .A high school graduation, and certainly one's right and desire to attend, is an important ingredient of school life--as much as attending class. To involuntarily subject a student at such an event to a display of religion that is offensive or not agreeable to his or her own religion or lack of religion is to constructively exclude that student from graduation, given the options the student has. The Establishment Clause does not permit this to occur.
"Nor can the state simply delegate the decision as to a prayer component of that ceremony to the graduating class without offending the Establishment Clause. The notion that a person's constitutional rights may be subject to a majority vote is itself anathema. The graduating classes in Loudoun County certainly could not have voted to exclude from the ceremonies persons of a certain race. To be constructively excluded from graduation ceremonies because of one's religion or lack of religion is not a great deal different.
"Alternatively, the court finds that even if a graduation at the high school level is not inherently state-sponsored nor inherently coercive, the facts here demonstrate an excessive state entanglement with religion in violation of the Establishment Clause. Although the actions of each of the four schools differed slightly, for all of them the graduation is a state-sponsored event. . . .At all of the schools except Loudoun Valley High School, the principals took action to initiate a senior class meeting. . . .All class meetings held were mandatory for seniors at school that day.
"The defendants argue that what occurred at the high schools and what is permitted by protocol adopted was no more than 'solemnization,' and thus had a secular propose. They also argue that no religion was advanced or prohibited. A reading of the student remarks does not bear the argument out. . . .The effect of the foregoing is to advance the religion of those who believe in a deity at the expense of nonbelievers, Jews, or other nonChristians."