A judge has ruled that even words like “Amen” and “benediction” cannot be a part of a public high school graduation ceremony, and now the class valedictorian is filing a motion to change that.
The valedictorian of Medina Valley High School wants to pray during her speech at Saturday’s graduation and has joined the fray over a federal judge’s order barring public prayer at the event.
Angela Hildenbrand and a conservative advocacy group called a news conference Thursday in front of the Alamo to announce she had filed an emergency motion with the U.S. 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene in the litigation started last week when the parents of an agnostic student sued the Medina Valley Independent School District.
The 5th Circuit still has to rule whether she has standing to join the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of senior Corwin Schultz and alleges students are wrongly forced to participate in school-sponsored prayer.
This week’s order by Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery left the door open for individual religious expression as long as it doesn’t ask others to pray. The school district is fighting it on appeal. Backed by the Dallas-based Liberty Institute, Hildenbrand argued that the order restricts her rights to free speech.
Hildenbrand, 18 , wants to be able to pray and mention terms or phrases barred by Biery’s order — to include “amen” and “in the name of Jesus” in the speech, said Erin Leu , an attorney with the Liberty Institute.
Biery’s order, issued Tuesday, says the Schultzes are “likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the inclusion of prayers at Medina Valley High School graduation ceremonies violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.” It also ordered the district to not include the terms “invocation” and “benediction” in the graduation program, and prohibits speakers from uttering certain phrases that would encourage the crowd to join in prayer.
The district appealed Thursday to the 5th Circuit, which covers Texas, seeking an emergency order that would overturn Biery’s ruling by Saturday night’s commencement.
“Such restrictions are unnecessarily broad in scope and unnecessarily and improperly entangle the District in its students’ free exercise of their religion,” the district said in its appeal. It argued that the order could expose the district to more litigation.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ‘s office filed a brief with the 5th Circuit backing the district’s position Thursday.
Hildenbrand, whose family is Catholic, said her faith was the most important part of her life.
“Consequently, I had hoped to use prayer during my speech to thank God, to encourage my peers and to pray for all those in my community affected by this case,” Hildenbrand said. “After all that I have been taught about the freedoms of speech, expression and religion in our country, I am disappointed that my liberties are being infringed upon by this court’s ruling to censor my free speech. I have been looking forward to my high school graduation for a long time, and had hoped that it would be cause for celebration, not for conflict.”
Interestingly, according to his Wikipedia entry, the judge who filed the ruling received degrees from two religiously-affiliated universities, Southern Methodist University and Texas Lutheran College.