State Reprimands School Superintendent for Leading Students in Prayer

A school superintendent who allegedly violated the rights of students by initiating a prayer at a school assembly has been reprimanded by the Nebraska Department of Education.

The Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint in March alleging that Boone Central Schools Superintendent Richard Stephens led students in a prayer Feb. 14.

In a letter to the ACLU, Education Commissioner Doug Christensen said Stephens had received a "nonpublic reprimand" and would not comment further on the case.

Stephens was not in his office Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

The U.S. Supreme Court said last year that prayer in public schools must be private or it violates the constitutionally required separation of government and religion.

According to the complaint, Stephens was meeting with students from Petersburg, whose school merged this year with Albion to create Boone Central.

The students asked for the meeting because they were upset that the nickname "Cardinals," which had been used by Albion, was picked for the new school over "Pirates," which had been used by Petersburg.

Stephens allegedly told the students that when he faced tough times, he would "turn to the Lord" and "I say a prayer to help me get through these difficult times in my life."

He then began an "extemporaneous prayer asking for God's help in the merger process," according to the complaint.

Stephens' lawyer, Kelley Baker of Lincoln, had argued that the gathering was not mandatory and that students were free to leave.

Tim Butz, executive director of the state ACLU, said he now considered the matter closed.

"What this has shown us is that the state will react to a complaint of inappropriate behavior on behalf of school officials," he said. "We're happy to be able to find an avenue that provides us an avenue of relief ... without having to take it into court."

Last year's ruling by the high court in a Texas case was a crushing defeat for school-prayer supporters.

By a 6-3 vote, the court barred officials from letting students lead stadium crowds in prayer before football games.

The court's sweeping language in the ruling was interpreted by some to extend far beyond school sports events -- eventually effecting graduation ceremonies, moments of silence and more.

When the Texas case was argued, an ABC News poll said two-thirds of Americans thought students should be permitted to lead such prayers.

In 1992, the high court barred clergy-led prayers -- invocations and benedictions -- at public school graduation ceremonies.