Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Messages Still to Be Decided Most Graduating Classes to Take Votes on Day of Ceremony

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Messages Still to Be Decided Most Graduating Classes to Take Votes on Day of Ceremony

Article excerpt

While federal judges have given Duval County schools legal permission to have prayer messages at graduation, principals said they are unsure if messages will be included in next week's ceremonies.

Most principals said a decision will not be made until the morning of commencement, when, during graduation practice, students will vote on the issue.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed this week to hold a hearing on the constitutionality of graduation messages. The hearing will be held the week of Oct. 18, most likely in Atlanta, said Matt Davidson, calendar clerk for the 11th Circuit.

The 11th Circuit includes Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

By agreeing to the hearing, the judges set aside last month's decision by a three-member panel from the same circuit. The panel had ruled 2-1 that the school system's policy on graduation messages is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of church and state.

The order reinstates a 1998 ruling by U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges which declared the policy constitutional.

The policy allows seniors to vote if they want a message and who should deliver it. The messages, which may include prayer, are not censored by the school system.

But schools have little time to hold a vote among seniors to learn if they want messages. Ceremonies begin Monday, with seven high schools holding commencement. Ceremonies continue through Thursday.

There is also concern that students selected to give the message may not have enough time to prepare one. The worries are strongest at schools scheduled to hold graduation Monday.

"This is not something that can't be done, but it would have been nice if we knew of this earlier," said Jack Shanklin Jr., principal of Andrew Jackson High. "Schools have to be flexible. It will be close, but we'll work it out."

Jackson students will vote during graduation practice Monday morning. Their ceremony is at 8 p.m.

If the students want a message, it will be developed by the senior class officers, Shanklin said. Since the officers are aware of the judges' order, they have likely begun preparing a speech, he said.

Ed White High will have a message included in its ceremony Monday.

Before the three-member panel made its decision, the senior class voted to have a message and selected a speaker, Principal Jim Clark said.

"We are doing it the way students originally wanted it," Clark said. "This is their ceremony and this is what they want."

But some schools where students had already voted to have a message don't know what will happen at commencement.

The senior class at Sandalwood High voted to have a message prior to the panel's ruling, but once the messages were declared unconstitutional, the class voted to have a moment of silence, said Principal Mike Walker.

When the School Board voted last month to appeal the panel's ruling, it also adopted a measure to allow for a moment of silence at graduation. …

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