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In a dramatic and urgently-needed victory for student graduation
prayer, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 10-2 vote, issued a
94-page decision upholding the rights of students to pray and articulate
their beliefs during graduation ceremonies.

The case arose in 1993, after the Duval County School Board in
Jacksonville, Fla., instituted a policy permitting students to offer
personal messages during graduation services. The policy mandated that,
if the graduating seniors chose to convey a voluntary message, the
graduating class was to elect a student to convey that message. That
message, school officials determined, could be either secular or
sacred. The policy further stated that the school would not pre-review
or censor the students’ messages.

Following the institution of that policy, some students chose to give
religious messages, while some offered secular messages. Some gave no
message at all. However, the policy was challenged by the American
Civil Liberties Union on the basis that students giving religious
messages would be violating the Constitution.

My dear friend, Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of
Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties education and legal defense
organization based in Orlando, Fla., intervened on behalf of students
who wanted to include a religious message or prayer in the ceremonies.
Staver, who is at the legal forefront of this critical debate, argued
that, if school officials barred students from expressing their
religious faith, they would be violating those students’ First Amendment
right to free speech.

Thankfully, the Court of Appeals agreed in issuing its ruling
upholding the policy and thus ruling in favor of the students’ rights to
pray and present religious messages at graduations. Staver stated, “I
am elated with this victory. Students do not shed their Constitutional
rights to freedom of speech or freedom of religion when they enter the
graduation podium.”

The court found that since the Duval County policy “unambiguously
recognizes” the difference between government speech endorsing religion
– prohibited by the Establishment Clause — and private speech that may
contain a prayerful message — protected by the Free Speech and Free
Exercise Clauses — their policy is constitutional. The court affirmed
the earlier decision of a district court.

‘The total absence of state involvement in deciding whether there
will be a graduation message, who will speak, or what the speaker may
say combined with the student speaker’s complete autonomy over the
content of the message convinces us that the message delivered, be it
secular or sectarian or both, is not state-sponsored,’ wrote Judge
Marcus for the majority. “To conclude otherwise would come perilously
close to announcing an absolute rule that would excise all private
religious expression from a public graduation ceremony, no matter how
neutral the process of selecting the speaker may be, nor how autonomous
the speaker may be in crafting her message.”

In other words, schools should not be in the business of censoring
students’ speech simply because the message is religious. Such
discrimination is nothing less than educational tyranny. Public schools
– of all places — should accommodate and nurture students who have
found peace and fulfillment in their faith. Public schools should
cultivate the free exchange of ideas — even controversial ones!

In recent years, our nation’s public schools have often become
unsympathetically hostile to students of faith. This problem has become
so acute that, following the poignant Columbine High School devastation,
families of the slain students were publicly criticized for carrying out
a predominantly Christian memorial service. In fact, those families
were, according to the Washington Times, threatened with legal action
because they planned to erect a memorial featuring biblical texts at a
park near the high school. The Freedom from Religion Foundation
actually determined the memorial would “make non-Christians feel
unwelcome at the park.”

This narrow-minded intolerance prompted House Majority Leader Dick
Armey, R-Texas, to proclaim, “We are witnessing a rising level of
bigotry against people of faith, especially Christians.” He added,
“People of faith are decent, loving and patriotic. They work hard to
provide for their families and are tireless advocates for improving our
communities across the nation. Let’s join together and condemn those
who would deny freedom and opportunity to every American.”

To that, I say, amen!

And to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, I say, well done. It is
high time students of faith are rewarded with such a momentous decision
that safeguards their right to express their convictions. They have
been treated as second-class citizens by many education elitists for far
too long!


Liberty Counsel, which is unofficially affiliated, with my Liberty
Alliance, is dedicated to offering legal counsel to persecuted people of
faith. Anyone needing its services may contact its offices at: PO Box
540774, Orlando, FL, 32854; Phone: (407) 875-2100; Fax: (407) 875-0770;
website: LC.org or
Falwell.com.

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