PEORIA, Ill. – A federal judge on Thursday barred Washington Community High School from allowing student-led prayer at this weekend's graduation ceremony -- the first time in the school's 80-year history that prayers won't be offered.
U.S. Chief District Judge Joe B. McDade issued a temporary restraining order against the school in a lawsuit filed Wednesday by Washington senior Natasha Appenheimer and the American Civil Liberties Union. He also plans to set a date next week for another hearing that could result in a permanent injunction against prayer at Washington's ceremonies.
School district officials defended the prayer on grounds that students, not administrators, were in charge of graduation.
They testified that student government leaders were given a sample program they could tailor to their own desires and chose their own graduation speakers. They said students even call the names of fellow graduates as they receive their diplomas. The invocation and benediction at Sunday's ceremony were to be given by the only student who volunteered to pray.
McDade said since graduation is held on school grounds with school resources, his reading of the law was that the prayer would be unconstitutional.
"A school can't delegate to students, can't license students, to do what it cannot do," he said.
Washington school Superintendent Lee Edwards said the programs have already been ordered, so officials will have to announce before the ceremony that the court has barred them from holding the invocation and benediction. He said he would have to consult with the school board before deciding whether to continue the legal fight for graduation prayers.
"Naturally, I'm disappointed in the decision and the end of an 80-year tradition at Washington High School," he said.
McDade said Sarah Claus, the student who volunteered to pray, can still speak at graduation as long as she does not invoke a deity.
Appenheimer, who testified that she heard prayers at the previous three graduations, told the court she was opposed to anyone else praying on her behalf. She said she was pleased by the ruling.
"We feel the courts certainly upheld my rights as an individual," said Appenheimer, who wore a cross and other symbols of Christianity on a neckchain.
The ACLU also was pleased with the decision.
"This has been a great civics lesson for all involved," said Pamela Sumners, ACLU of Illinois staff attorney. "The students involved in this dispute ... learned that they can exercise and vindicate their rights in a thoughtful, considerate and mature fashion."