FFRF complaint helps stop Calif. graduation prayer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation joined other secular groups in successfully stopping illegal prayer at a scheduled graduation at Exeter Union High School in California.

A moment of silence will replace prayer at the June 4 commencement. High school district trustees voted 3-0 on June 1 to eliminate student-led prayer.

The Foundation opposed the prayer, as did Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Anti-Defamation League. FFRF also sent an action alert to its members in the Exeter-Visalia area about the special trustees' meeting Tuesday.

After FFRF was contacted by an Exeter Union senior who objected to a religious commencement, Rebecca Markert, staff attorney, wrote Superintendent Renee Whitson on May 27 to remind her that "the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations. Even if student-initiated, school officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, or benediction at a public high school graduation."

Trustees had voted earlier to cancel the prayer but then decided to ask the 221 seniors to illegally "vote" on the constitutional matter. Seniors voted last week but the votes were never counted and will be destroyed, Whitson said.

Markert noted that the Supreme Court in 2000 struck down a New Mexico school policy that authorized students to vote on whether to have prayer at football games. "In finding the student vote unconstitutional, the court specifically addressed the constitutional problem this practice poses," Markert said. "It stated, '[a] student election does nothing to protect minority views but rather places the students who hold such views at the mercy of the majority. Because fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.' "

Why the school decided to let students vote is puzzling, Markert said. "The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students."

Prayer opponents at the trustees' meeting included two former students and two current ones with signs that said "God Hates Showoffs" and "God Says No Prayer," reported the Visalia Times-Delta.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said for the school district to ignore the law and instead let students vote was an illegal copout. "Passing the buck on a legal issue like this was rather cowardly. The adults are supposed to be in charge of schools."

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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