Ken Paxton

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Texas Attorney General Defends Students' Constitutional Right To Express Religious Views

CASTROVILLE Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today took legal action to defend high school graduates’ constitutional rights to freely express their religious beliefs during graduation ceremonies. In an amicus brief filed with the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the Attorney General explained that a district court in San Antonio improperly required Medina Valley Independent School District to censor its students’ graduation speeches and violated students’ constitutionally protected First Amendment rights.

After students worked diligently for four years, federal judges should not threaten graduates with sanctions for simply expressing their personal beliefs during graduation ceremonies, Attorney General Abbott said. The First Amendment prohibits governments from interfering with Americans’ rights to freely express their religious beliefs yet that is exactly what this misguided court order attempts to achieve. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court has held that Congress can convene each day with a prayer, Medina Valley High School students have a constitutionally protected right to pray during their graduation speeches.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof. Because the district court ignores the text of the Constitution, it improperly prohibits Medina Valley High School students from freely expressing religious beliefs during their graduation ceremonies. The Attorney General’s legal brief asks the Fifth Circuit to overturn the legally flawed order and protect the graduation speakers’ First Amendment rights.

On May 26, the parents of a Medina Valley High School student filed a lawsuit seeking to prohibit student speakers from expressing religious beliefs during graduation ceremonies. In a section of the lawsuit ironically titled prayer for relief, the plaintiffs asked the court to enjoin the Medina Valley Independent School District and order the district to pay their attorneys’ fees. After a May 31 hearing, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued an order requiring that the school district: (1) remove the terms invocation and benediction from the graduation program; (2) prohibit speakers from asking audience members to stand, join in prayer, bow their heads, end their remarks with amen, or use the word prayer; and (3) review, and make necessary changes to, the students’ revised remarks to ensure those changes comply with the court’s decision.

The Attorney General’s brief asks the Fifth Circuit to overturn the district court’s order and allow student speakers to deliver their original graduation remarks without suffering unconstitutional, court-ordered censorship. As the Attorney General’s brief explains: [T]he district court ordered Medina Valley to abridge the free speech and free exercise rights of its graduation speakers and threatened Medina Valley officials with incarceration and other sanctions if they fail to commit these First Amendment violations.

The Attorney General’s brief also defended the school district, which has been improperly ordered to censor its students’ remarks: Medina Valley’s policy permitting students to prepare and deliver opening and closing remarks at graduation is constitutional, even when in practice those remarks may address the speaker’s religious faith or contain a prayer. And that is no less true merely because the graduation programs traditionally call those remarks an invocation’ and benediction.’

According to the Attorney General’s legal brief, the district court’s order threatens all Texas students’ constitutional rights: [T]he shadow of uncertainty cast by the district court’s erroneous decision extends far beyond Castroville, Texas. Further, the Attorney General explained: [T]he district court’s ruling misapplies the Establishment Clause in a way that threatens the rights of Texas students to freely express their religious beliefs in public settings.

On Thursday, Medina Valley High School Valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand also asked the Fifth Circuit to overturn the district court’s order. The Class of 2011’s top student filed a brief arguing: The District Court’s censorship of her words prior to their utterance is an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech. The speech enjoined by the District Court is protected by the First Amendment’s Speech and Free Exercise Clauses. According to court documents filed on the valedictorian’s behalf, Ms. Hildenbrand intends that her graduation address include words on permissible subjects from a religious viewpoint. During her address, based upon her sincerely held religious beliefs, she desires to pray

The State’s action in Christa Schultz, et al. v. Medina Valley Independent School District reflects Attorney General Abbott’s latest effort to defend public acknowledgments of religion. After Attorney General Abbott submitted a legal brief joined by all 50 state attorneys general, in January 2009, a federal judge cleared the way for President Barack Obama to include prayers during his Presidential Inauguration. In a 2003 amicus brief that was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court also on behalf of all 50 states Attorney General Abbott successfully thwarted a Dallas atheist’s attempt to remove the words under God from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. In 2007, the Attorney General defeated a separate lawsuit that attempted to remove the words under God from the Texas Pledge of Allegiance.

Attorney General Abbott has personally defended public acknowledgements of religion before the U.S. Supreme Court, where he defended the State’s Ten Commandments monument, which stands between the Texas Capitol and the Supreme Court on the Texas Capitol grounds. In that case, Van Orden v. Perry, the plaintiff sought to remove the Ten Commandments from the Texas Capitol, but Attorney General Abbott successfully argued that the monument was entirely constitutional.

Quotes from the Attorney General’s brief:

[A]s the Supreme Court has noted, [w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952).

Government acknowledgments of religion such as offered prayers serve the constitutionally legitimate purposes of solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society. Lynch, 465 U.S. at 693 (O’Connor, J., concurring).

First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school house gate. Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969).

In a limited public forum, which exists where a public school endeavors to allow students to express their own views, the State must not discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98, 106 (2001).