This Saturday, students and families at the graduation ceremony for a high school in San Antonio, Texas, will be asked to bow their heads in prayer. This is despite the struggles of Christa and Danny Schultz, a couple whose son will be among the graduation class, who claimed that the school’s traditions, like the invocation and benediction, would force them to participate in religious activities, even though they are agnostic.
The Schulzes filed a lawsuit, backed by the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State, against the school district, and were initially successful when a district court forbade the school to include prayer in its graduation exercises. Now, an emergency appeal has overturned the ban, which Texas Gov. Rick Perry called “reprehensible.” The school valedictorian, Angela Hildenbrand, who wanted to pray during her speech, will be permitted to do so.
Conservative organizations lauded the lifting of the ban as “a complete victory for religious freedom and for Angela.” But the original ruling did not ban mention of religion; rather, Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery stipulated that, according to the San Antonio Express-News, “the school district must tell its graduation speakers that they can talk about religion and their personal beliefs but can’t pray or call on the audience to pray.” He suggested, too, that students be allowed to make “statements of their own beliefs,” like making the sign of the cross, wearing certain religious garments, or kneeling to face Mecca.
So it sounds less like Biery was attacking students’ rights to religious expression, and instead protecting audience members and fellow students from being forced to participate in a religious activity with which they did not identify. And the school district seems to have responded, at least in some elements of the graduation ceremony, changing “invocation” and “benediction” to “opening remarks” and “closing remarks,” in response to the lawsuit.
What is more troubling is the fact that the valedictorian will still be allowed to ask audience members to pray, despite the fact that they might not be religious, or ascribe to her faith tradition. This isn’t about “censoring” her speech – it’s an attempt to make sure that the graduation ceremony is comfortable for all attendees. And the change could be as simple as asking audience members to “close their eyes in a spirit of reflection or prayer,” rather than asking them to bow their heads in prayer.
The rhetoric that has emerged around this issue is disturbingly intense on both sides. Senator John Cornyn said that Biery’s ruling represented an attack on “all things religious in public life,” while both Biery and Hildenbrand have received threats of violence.
What do you think? Was Biery right, or the appeals court? Should Hildenbrand be allowed to ask her audience members to pray during her valedictory speech?
Photo from Valeriebb's Flickr.
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