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Judges deny prayer during graduation

Published May 13, 1999|Updated Sep. 29, 2005

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a ruling that would have allowed prayers at Duval County graduations.

The Duval County School System's policy allowing prayers during graduation ceremonies if students vote to have them violates constitutional protections of freedom of religion, a panel of federal appeals judges ruled.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a lower court's ruling that students have a First Amendment right to pray at graduation, although schools can't force them to.

After a U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawed school prayer in 1992, the Duval school system adopted a policy allowing high school students to select by majority vote a graduation message to be delivered by a student. Those messages _ often prayers _ could not be censored by school officials.

The appeals court ruled Tuesday that graduation ceremonies are controlled by the schools and graduating students who object to the prayers have no alternative but to attend.

"We hold that the Duval County School System's policy coerces objecting students to participate in prayer," Chief Judge Joseph W. Hatchett wrote in the majority opinion.

The Duval policy survived a 1993 court challenge from objecting students and parents. A separate group of students and parents sued again in 1998, but the district court ruled in the school system's favor, saying the law had not changed since the earlier suit was filed.

Florida lawmakers this year considered changing state law to allow prayers at optional high school functions, including graduation. But the bill, which would have permitted each school district to decide whether to allow the messages, wasn't approved.

Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed a similar school prayer bill three years ago.

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