School Valedictorian and Her Parents File Federal Lawsuit Challenging School Sanctioned Prayers at Graduation Ceremony

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
May 16, 2001 12:00 am

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ACLU of Illinois
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CHICAGO–Acting on behalf of the valedictorian for the 2001 graduating class at Washington Community High School and her parents, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a federal lawsuit in Peoria today asking a federal judge to block school sanctioned prayers at this Sunday’s graduation ceremony.

“The cause of educating young persons is not advanced when students are subjected to prayer officially sanctioned and orchestrated by school officials,” said Pamela Sumners, staff attorney for the ACLU of Illinois. “The rights of parents also are violated. We simply do not allow school officials to interfere with the rightful role of parents in determining when and how their children should pray.”

A group of Washington High seniors first raised concerns with school officials about the inclusion of an invocation and benediction during the graduation ceremony. A group of students met with Washington School Superintendent Lee Edwards and requested that the prayers be discontinued as part of the graduation ceremony. Their request was denied, along with the request of a group of parents, citizens and local religious leaders who met subsequently with Mr. Edwards to ask him to eliminate prayers from the ceremony.

The prayers at the graduation ceremony are described by Washington school officials as “student-led.” These prayers are given by students who volunteer for the assignments, according to school officials. Those delivering the invocation and benediction are required to submit their draft remarks to a faculty member, who reviews and approves the material before the graduation ceremony.

Following their meetings with school officials, the students and local community and religious leaders requested assistance from the ACLU. Attorneys for the ACLU of Illinois communicated their concerns about the practice, citing two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions directly addressing the facts in this case. In addition, a member of the ACLU’s legal staff made a brief presentation to the school board in executive session on Monday evening.

School Board members also heard from many citizens, parents and students at their meeting on Monday evening regarding the controversy. Many speakers urged the Board to cancel the prayers, citing the need to respect all religious viewpoints in the community.

After a lengthy public session, as well as an executive session, the School Board refused to cancel the prayers at the graduation ceremony.

“Clearly this matter has unnecessarily divided the community,” Sumners said. “The Board members could have ended this division, demonstrated respect for everyone’s viewpoint and helped to bridge the divisiveness in the community by acting to cancel the prayers at this Sunday’s graduation ceremony. This lawsuit became necessary because of their inaction and their indifference about their responsibility under the Constitution.”

Today’s lawsuit was brought on behalf of two students, Natasha Appenheimer — a senior scheduled to graduate on Sunday from Washington Community High School — and her younger brother Jerrod, who is a sophomore at the school.

Natasha is the valedictorian of her graduating class, and was among those students who initially approached school administrators about the detrimental impact of the prayers on the student body. Natasha and Jerrod are joined in the suit by their parents, Theresa and Daniel Appenheimer.

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