Texas Valedictorian Can Pray at Graduation, Appeals Court Rules

Medina Valley High School Valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand in Texas can pray at her graduation ceremony on Saturday after a federal appeals court granted an emergency appeal late Friday.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned U.S. District Court Judge Fred Biery’s ruling that banned an official invocation, benediction, or any message that can be considered a prayer at Medina Valley School District’s commencement ceremonies.

“We are not persuaded that plaintiffs have shown that they are substantially likely to prevail on the merits, particularly on the issue that the individual prayers or other remarks to be given by students at graduation are, in fact, school sponsored," wrote the 5th Circuit Court.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Medina Valley School District, and high school valedictorian Hildenbrand were among those who urged the federal appeals court to reverse Biery’s ruling, made on Tuesday, and allow students to pray at their graduation.

“It should not be illegal for students to say a prayer at a graduation ceremony,” said Abbott in a statement after the appeals court’s decision. “Now, the federal court of appeals agrees.”

The graduation prayer controversy began when agnostic parents Christa and Danny Schultz filed a lawsuit with the help of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State to prevent prayers at their son’s high school graduation. They argue that the graduation prayers constituted school sponsorship of religion. Their son, who attends Medina Valley High School in Castroville, Texas, said he might not attend his graduation if other students are allowed to pray during the event.

Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of Medina Valley High School valedictorian Hildenbrand, who said she wanted to thank God and pray for all those in the community affected by the case in her speech.

“After all that I’ve been taught about the freedoms of speech, expression and religion in our country, I am disappointed that my liberties are being infringed upon by this court’s ruling to censor my speech,” Hildenbrand had said during a press conference Thursday in front of the Alamo in San Antonio.

Word of the case even reached Texas Governor Rick Perry, who released a statement Friday afternoon, calling Judge Biery’s ruling “reprehensible.” Perry argued that the ruling violates students’ First Amendment rights to freely express their religious beliefs, and pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has maintained that the U.S. Congress can begin every day with prayer.

“The reprehensible action taken by a federal judge underscores the increasingly inappropriate federal encroachment into the lives of Americans by unconstitutionally banning prayer at a Texas high school graduation,” said Perry in a statement.

“I fully support Attorney General Abbott’s efforts to defend the right to pray, and Texas will continue to stand behind all those who wish to pray in our state.”

Liberty Institute president Kelly Shackelford said the appeals court’s reversal “is a complete victory for religious freedom and for Angela.”

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