The most famous school prayer lawsuits in California have tackled a difficult question: When does a public school ritual such as a graduation ceremony or a daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance become an endorsement of religion that violates the First Amendment?
Here are three key California cases that attempted to answer that question – or at least mull it over, since, in one of the cases, the U.S. Supreme Court punted rather than rule on a culturally explosive dispute about the language of the Pledge of Allegiance:
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Cole v. Orroville Union High School District
– A California high school was within its rights to bar two students from speaking at graduation because of the religious content of the speeches they had planned to give, a federal court ruled in 2000.
The students, including the class valedictorian, refused to rewrite their prepared remarks, which the school required be approved before the ceremony; officials at Oroville High School to pull both from the speakers' lineup, The First Amendment Center said.
A three-judge panel ruled unanimously for the school district, concluding that public school graduations are government ceremonies and therefore prohibited under the First Amendment from endorsing a particular religious viewpoint, the center said. "Because district approval of the content of student speech was required, allowing Niemeyer to make a sectarian, proselytizing speech as part of the graduation ceremony would have lent District approval to the religious message of the speech," the center quoted the ruling.
Lassonde vs. Pleasanton Unified School District
– Using the Cole case as precedent, a federal appeals court in 2003 ruled that another valedictorian, Nicholas Lassonde, had no First Amendment right to give an expressly religious speech to his fellow graduates.
Like the plaintiffs in the Cole case, Lassonde showed a draft of his speech to the principal, as required by the school, and was told to rewrite or remove portions that quoted scripture and urged classmates "to turn to God and Jesus," the appeals judges wrote in their opinion.
Lassonde refused to make changes and his valedictory speech was canceled. Relying on Cole, the judges upheld the punishment on the grounds that at a public school, which is required to be religion-neutral, "the essence of graduation is to place the school's imprimatur on the ceremony — including the student speakers that the school selected."
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Elk Grove Unified School District vs. Newdow
– This 2004 case had the potential to be historic after a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled for the defendant, an atheist named Michael Newdow, who had an elementary school-age daughter, and declared the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the Constitution.
That phrase, added to the Pledge in 1954, had never been struck down before. The ruling "unleashed a torrent of criticism from President Bush, Congress and many members of the public," the First Amendment Center wrote.
But the Supreme Court avoided that fight and instead "decided the case on procedural grounds," according to FindLaw,
ruling that Newdow did not have legal standing to bring his case because he had lost custody of his daughter to the child's mother.
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