Poteet ISD removes Invocation and Benediction

Commencement program altered after call from Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Poteet Independent School District Superintendent Andy Castillo announced Tuesday that due to legal problems the words “Invocation” and “Benediction” will be removed from the commencement program of their Friday night graduation ceremony. The words “Opening Remarks” and “Closing Remarks” will replace “Invocation” and “Benediction”.

The substitution comes after the school district received a complaint from a person representing Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “After receiving this information last week, we have been working with our attorneys to avoid legal problems,” said Poteet Superintendent Andy Castillo.

Castillo has reason to be cautious and seek legal council as it was this same time last year that Americans United helped a Castroville family, file a lawsuit against Medina Valley Independent School District for the use of those very same words in their commencement program.

On May 26, 2011, Americans United filed a lawsuit against Medina Valley Independent School District and a motion for emergency relief on behalf of Christa and Danny Schultz and their sons. The suit argued that in past years, the Medina Valley ISD violated a 1992 Supreme Court ruling barring school-sponsored prayer by including a student-led invocation and benediction at graduation ceremonies.

San Antonio Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery agreed with the plaintiffs (the Schultz’) and granted an emergency court order that banned public prayer at the June, 2011 Medina Valley ISD High School graduation ceremony.

Biery ruled that student speakers were allowed to refer to individual beliefs but the district was to instruct them not to ask for a group prayer, or ask for audience members to bow their heads, or use terms such as “amen.”

Biery’s ruling seemed to have the opposite effect on the students and crowd at the Medina Valley graduation ceremonies last year. It was reported that “amens” could be heard throughout the ceremony. One student in his opening remarks said, “Those who wish, would you please pray with me?”

Superintendent Castillo said about the Poteet High School Graduation held this Friday, June 1 “if the students who will be speaking initiate a prayer, that is their wish.”

If the response from parents and students to the announcement of the removal of benediction and invocation is anything like the firestorm that hit Castroville last year, the Strawberry Capital of Texas is in for a rough few days. The outcry to the lawsuit in Castroville was heard far beyond the county lines with Governor Rick Perry, General Attorney Greg Abbott and even Newt Gingrich expressing their outrage.

The Medina Valley school district immediately filed an emergency appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit arguing that the prayers were student-initiated and not school-sponsored. Attorney General Greg Abbott and Medina Valley 2011 valedictorian, Angela Hildenbrand filed briefs with the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in New Orleans supporting the district’s emergency appeal.

The day before the graduation ceremony, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Biery’s decision, ruling “it’s not substantially likely the plaintiffs will be able to prove individual student prayers equate to school-sponsored prayer.”

Americans United submitted an amended complaint in October, 2011 and in January, 2012 filed a motion for partial summary-judgment asking the trial court to rule that the prayers at Medina Valley ISD’s graduation and football games violated the Establishment Clause. Medina Valley ISD then filed motions to dismiss and for summary judgment.

In February 2012, following a multi-day mediation between both parties, the parties resolved the case through a comprehensive settlement agreement. The agreement, which the trial court approved, provided among other details he following (1) citation:

•School-district officials will not initiate, solicit, or direct prayers; join students in prayers; proselytize; or invite others to engage in these practices.

•School-district officials will not display crosses, religious images, religious quotations, bibles or religious texts, or other religious icons on the walls, hallways, and other areas at school.

•The school district will not invite speakers, including government officials or community leaders, who it has reason to believe will proselytize or promote religion during their remarks.

•The school-district will refrain from designating student speeches as Invocation, Benediction, or other religious terms; will cease reviewing and revising student graduation speeches in advance; and will no longer pass prior years’ speeches (which often contained prayers) to current year’s speakers.

•The school-district will provide annual training to all school-district personnel who interact with students or who supervise those who interact with students or parents. The training will cover a variety of topics related to students’ rights, church-state separation, and the requirements of the settlement agreement.

To view and read the filed settlement agreement approved by the United States District Court, Western Division of Texas, Schultz vs. Medina Valley Independent School District please go to the pleasantonexpress.com website version of this article and click on the link found at the bottom of the s story.

Christa and her son, Corwyn Schultz, who was a Medina Valley 2011 graduate, were interviewed by CNN June 10, 2011. They stated that separation of church and state was the main reason for their lawsuit against the Medina Valley Independent School District. Christa Schultz told CNN that student speakers were not the issue and that they have every right to free speech about their religious beliefs whatever deity they follow. She said that her issue was with the school district sponsoring prayer not just at graduation but year round.

To watch the entire CNN interview with the Shultz family, please go to this story in our website and click on the link.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *