A Texas valedictorian is fighting to appeal a court’s ban on prayers at graduation ceremonies, with her own being this Saturday.
Angela Hildenbrand, the valedictorian of Medina Valley High School in Castroville, Texas, is fighting U.S. District Judge Fred Biery’s ruling on Tuesday that the Medina Valley School District’s graduation ceremonies cannot have an invocation or benediction. Biery ruled that students can express their religious beliefs in speeches, but cannot call the crowd to pray or deliver a message considered a prayer.
Dallas-based Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of Hildenbrand in hopes that the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn Judge Biery’s ruling. The Medina Valley Independent School District also appealed Thursday, seeking an emergency order to overturn Biery’s ban by Saturday’s commencement.
“I had hoped to use prayer during my speech to thank God, to encourage my peers and to pray for all those in my community affected by this case,” said Hildenbrand during a press conference in front of the Alamo in San Antonio on Thursday. “After all that I’ve been taught about the freedoms of speech, expression and religion on our country, I am disappointed that my liberties are being infringed upon by this court’s ruling to censor my speech.
“I have been looking forward to my high school graduation for a long time, and had hoped that it would be cause for celebration, not for conflict.”
Hildenbrand comes from a Catholic family, she shared, and faith is the most important part of her life.
On Tuesday, Judge Biery ruled in favor of agnostic parents Christa and Danny Schultz. The judge told the school district that it cannot use the words “invocation” or “benediction,” saying it would give the impression that the school was “sponsoring a religion.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Schultzes in their effort to prevent prayers at their son’s high school graduation. Their son had said he might not attend his graduation if other students are allowed to pray during the event.
Erin Leu, an attorney at Liberty Institute, said Hildenbrand wants to pray and used the terms “amen” and “in the name of Jesus,” which are banned by Biery, at Saturday’s commencement ceremony.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly called for an end to religious viewpoint discrimination, and attempts to censor Ms. Hildenbrand’s speech solely for religious references are unconstitutional and without legal basis,” said Leu.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has also filed an emergency appeal at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in support of allowing prayers at graduation ceremonies in the Medina Valley School District.
Hildenbrand’s father, Timothy, said, “As a parent and as a citizen I would just like to say that I’m so proud of my daughter for standing up for our First Amendment rights.”