June 2, 2011 / 9:46 PM / 7 years ago

Valedictorian fights judge's ban on graduation prayer

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The valedictorian of a high school in a San Antonio suburb where a judge has banned formal prayers at graduation ceremonies on Saturday is fighting for an opportunity to lead the crowd in prayer.

On Thursday, the North Texas-based Liberty Institute, a nonprofit that describes itself as seeking to limit government and promote Judeo-Christian values, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the valedictorian of Castroville’s Medina Valley High School, Angela Hildenbrand.

“After all that I’ve 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 speech,” Hildenbrand said at a press conference at the Alamo.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ruled on Tuesday that the Medina Valley School District may not proceed with plans to include an invocation or benediction at the ceremony, saying that doing so would make it sound like the school is “sponsoring a religion.”

He said student speakers may reference God in their remarks.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Wednesday asked a federal appeals court to overturn the order.

“This is part of an ongoing attempt to purge God from the public setting, while at the same time demanding from the court increased yielding to all things agnostic and atheistic,” Abbott said.

He said Congress begins each session with a prayer to God, and Biery’s ruling would allow a student to “bend over in honor of Mecca,” but not lead a prayer to the Christian God.

The case has been seized by both sides in the ongoing debate over references to religion in schools and in public places.

The judge’s ruling followed a lawsuit against the district by agnostics Christa and Danny Schultz saying their son might not take part in graduation if he were forced to participate in religious activities.

Ayesha Kahn, an attorney for Americans United for Church and State, which represents the Schultzes, said earlier this week that the district “has been flouting the law for decades.”

But some residents of the town of about 3,000 about 20 miles west of San Antonio, which still strongly retains the flavor of the French Catholics who founded it in the 1850s, object to halting the community tradition of invocation at graduation.

“My best friend last year said the prayer, and it was really cool that my best friend, who I have known since I was three years old, said the prayer, and now it turns out that she may be the last one to ever say the prayer at Medina Valley,” Kelsey Johnson, who graduated from the high school last year, told Reuters.

Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton

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