Judge's Ruling Allows Senior Prayer

A prayer was how Trista Harris ended the graduation on Saturday, May 25, 2002.

About 200 guests were asked to bow their heads by the 18-year-old senior who had been quiet about whether she would pray during the senior commencement, nearly an hour into the Plainview High School graduation ceremony.  For “making us a stronger community,” she thanked God and for “us all to have a great day and a great graduation,” she prayed.  By saying “In Jesus’ name we pray, amen,” she ended the prayer.

For a week, this tiny Eastern Plains farming community was in the spotlight on the issue of church and state separation in its classrooms, newspapers, and living rooms.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger ruled on May 24, 2002, that since the Kiowa school district did not know how many messages would be delivered by students, the seniors could say whatever they wanted.  For the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which sued the district on behalf of teacher Sean Shields and his 13-year-old daughter, Ashlee, who are atheists, the decision marked a defeat.  For prayer, on May 25, 2002, neither bowed their head.  Trista’s decision to pray did not surprise Shields.  He said, “It was expected.”

She prayed because, “I felt I should,” said Trista.

The district and community have a history of injecting religion into activities, from praying at school functions to residents leaving Bibles at the schools alleged Shields and ACLU attorneys.

Throughout Saturday’s ceremony faith was expressed.  Valedictorian Casey McDaniel ended his speech by telling the audience, “I hope that everyone would be blessed by God.”  The entire address of Republican State Senator Mark Hillman to the graduates was based on the U.S. Constitution where he said the phrase separation of church and state is not even referenced.  Hillman advised those who are offended by prayer to do what those who are offended by obscenity to do,  “I ignore it.  Think about something else.”

Some felt offended when Shields challenged the practice of prayer at graduation. 

The lawsuit was called “bad timing…right before graduation,” by Joann Harris, Trista’s grandmother.

(Karen Rouse, “Plainview graduates say a prayer.  ‘Senior Message’ invocation was cleared by judge’s ruling,” The Denver Post, May 26, 2002)


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