Idaho is home to one of the most contentious public school prayer lawsuits ever to be heard in federal court. Harris v. Joint School District No. 241 originated in a small Idaho farming town, Grangeville, in 1991, and ended in something of a stalemate that has held for more than two decades.
The case pitted Grangeville High School senior Beverly Harris against the school and – by her account to the Freedom From Religion Foundation
– most of the town after she and her family challenged the tradition of a prayer at graduation. The Harris family, working with the ACLU, filed a lawsuit that would eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
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The school had opted to let seniors themselves vote on whether to include a prayer at commencement. School officials removed themselves from the decision-making loop on graduation speeches, believing that student-led prayer would not violate the constitutional separation between church and state.
A federal judge in Boise sided with the schools, and against Harris – who by then was attending college. But in 1994 a federal appeals panel reversed the Boise ruling and, in a 2-1 vote, declared the Grangeville student-led prayer arrangement unconstitutional.
The majority wrote that
"school officials cannot divest themselves of constitutional responsibility by allowing the students to make crucial decisions about graduation."
That ruling applied to Idaho and eight other western states in the 9th Judicial Circuit and conflicted directly with a 5th Circuit ruling out of New Orleans, which said student-led commencement prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
But when the Supreme Court took up the Harris case, it didn't resolve the split, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
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The high court did overturn the 9th Circuit's sweeping nine-state order in 1995, but only on procedural grounds, ruling that the issue was moot because Harris wasn't in high school anymore.
With no definitive call from the nation's highest court, student-led prayer remains "one of the most confusing and controversial areas of the current school prayer debate," according to First Amendment Schools.
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