Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

School Prayer Guidelines Focus of Appeals Hearing

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

School Prayer Guidelines Focus of Appeals Hearing

Article excerpt

In a case that could have national implications, a federal

appeals court will hear arguments today about Duval County

School Board guidelines that have cleared the way for students

to offer prayers at graduation ceremonies.

The case, filed against the School Board in 1993 by three high

school seniors and a parent, is being watched by national groups

involved in free-speech and freedom-of-religion issues.

It centers on guidelines that were issued to Duval County

schools after a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision barred

school-sponsored prayers at graduation. Those guidelines allow

student-led "messages" at graduation -- messages that, in some

cases, have been prayers.

U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges has ruled that these

guidelines were constitutional.

School Board attorneys and supporters say the guidelines allow

students to say whatever they want at graduation and are not

aimed at promoting religion.

"We're not favoring religion, and they [opponents] can't point

to any way we're favoring religion," said Stephen Durden, an

assistant city general counsel who will argue part of the School

Board's case today.

But Mitchell Stone, a Jacksonville lawyer who filed a brief

against the School Board on behalf of the American Jewish

Congress, said the guidelines are an attempt to get around the

Supreme Court's ban on graduation prayer.

Stone said the policy is unconstitutional because it allows

students to select speakers and decide whether graduation

ceremonies will include a prayer. That opens the door to

Christian groups imposing their beliefs on religious minorities.

"That's what they [school officials] are basically saying,

`Let's take it back to pre-1776 and say majority rules,' " Stone

said.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

will hear arguments in the case at the federal courthouse in

Jacksonville. The panel will meet at 9 a.m., though it is

expected to hear three other cases before it gets to the School

Board case.

It's unclear when the panel will issue a ruling. …

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